Legendary athletics coach Lingappa dies at 95

Karnataka Athletic Association secretary Rajveelu paying tribute Dronacharya awardee and Karnataka's oldest athletic coach N Lingappa who died in Bengaluru on Tuesday. (DH Photo)

Dronacharya award-winning coach and one of Indian athletics' legendary mentors N Lingappa passed away at the age of 95 during the early hours of Tuesday here.

His cremation ceremony was held at Lal Bagh crematorium in Wilson Garden and saw former athletes P C Ponnappa, Ashwini Nachappa, Satish Pillai and Kenneth Powell among others come to pay respects alongside other state and national level athletes.

The evergreen coach had his hand in shaping some of India's great athletes, in addition to the aforementioned names, including D Y Biradar, Uday K Prabhu, A P Ramaswamy and David Premnath.

Whether as a coach or an athlete before, sport was in Lingappa's blood.

After dabbling in various sports, Lingappa found his calling in athletics. A javelin thrower at the start, he shifted to race walking following a shoulder injury and was selected to represent the country in the 1954 Manila Asian Games only for the event to be cancelled.

His Dronacharya award, the last and most prestigious award in his collection, came at the age of 90, after 18 years of disappointment and rejection while arguably less deserving candidates rose ahead of him.

Despite these setbacks, coming at different stages of his career, his commitment never wavered, travelling from Kengeri to Sree Kanteerava Stadium every day. Satish Pillai --  1974 Asian Games silver medalist, Dhyanchand Award winner and one of Lingappa's most decorated students -- was in awe.

"After I retired and came back (to Bengaluru) from Jamshedpur after 40 years, I found him with the same enthusiasm and commitment as he had back then (when he coached me)," he said.

"I have seen him when I was a young child, I retired and continued to see him till his last days. I think his spirit and contribution has been commendable," revealed Ashwini Nachappa, herself an accomplished athlete of international fame.

"He used to work in the university and I was in the hostel," remembers Ponnappa, one of Lingappa's wards and an Asian Games silver medallist in 4x400m. "University office used to be in Central College those days and we used to walk through Cubbon Park to the stadium.

"I met him as a teenager and he was so committed that we were also committed. He was there at 5-5:30 am and in our days, transportation was only bicycle. The award given to him is very small compared to what he has given to the sport."

Speaking to his trainees, a picture develops of a hard-nosed, no-nonsense coach who took his trade seriously and set the standard. Impressively, he did so by living his life by the same rules. Over the years, six decades of it, his cycle was replaced by a scooter, but his passion remained undimmed. Not that his intensity was ever a cause for fear, referred to as 'friendly, father figure'.

Kenneth Powell, who participated in the 1964 Olympics, saw another side of the great coach, a more nurturing one. He tells a tale of having his knee locked up during a camp ahead of the South Zone meet back in 1962 and how Lingappa took him to 'one of the Puttur guys' and helped him treat the injury. He won the 400m race five days later.

While his coaching has rightfully overshadowed all other aspects of his career, he was also well respected as an official.

"He was also involved in officiating," revealed Prabhu. "He was a man who followed the rules, people appreciated it or not. He wouldn't spare AFI also as far as officiating was concerned. He used to follow the rules as a habit. A man of principle. We've lost a great man in athletics."

Any mention of Lingappa wouldn't be complete without the Sree Kanteerava stadium. He was ever present fixture at the stadium, celebrated his birthdays with coaches and trainees there for years. It was only the last three months when age took a toll that his visits became sporadic.

"He used to give good guidance and was a hard task-master to get the potential of those athletes. Even last year he was sitting with me and talking about what is wrong with this athlete or the other," V R Beedu, a Dronacharya awardee and long-time friend, said. "We really miss him. There is a big vacuum in athletics coaching. He was a father figure at Kanteerava athletics stadium," he added.

Kanteerava will surely feel a pang of loneliness, for the first time in well over half a century.

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