Thonakkal Gopi comes from an agricultural family in Wayanad, Kerala. He has been fond of running ever since he can remember. During school and college, he represented his state in 5,000-m and 10,000-m runs. However, he had to discontinue his studies when he was in his final year of BA economics due to financial constraints.
Determined not to give up his passion in the face of obstacles, he joined the Army under the sports quota. This meant he could take care of the financial needs of the family and pursue his passion at the same time. Talking to ESPN, he said,
"A steady, sustained income was crucial; that's how I took up a job in the Indian Army through the sports quota."
Passionate as he was about running, Gopi's entry into the Olympics wasn't planned.
Gopi was acting as a pace-setter for an Army marathon runner in January 2017. He was expected to complete the first 31 km of the race and leave the rest to the Army's runner. However, after beginning the race, he realised he wanted to complete it. According to Sportskeeda, he said,
“I was a pace-setter and I was to run only till the 30-km mark. Once I set the pace, my body felt nice. So I continued running, and I am glad I finished second. The Olympic qualification was the icing on the cake.”
In his first full marathon, the 29-year-old also broke the record and entered the Rio Olympics. He also won a cash award of Rs 5.5 lakh. He further said,
"I am a 5,000-m and 10,000-m runner. I have run half marathons before but never a full marathon...I didn't expect that I would achieve Olympic qualification at the first go."
Gopi used the award money for his Olympic preparations, training under Surinder Singh Bhandari, a celebrated runner, along with Kheta Ram and Nitendra Rawat. He completed the marathon in two hours and 48 seconds and clinched the gold with Andrey Petrov of Uzbekistan and Byambalev Tseveenravdan of Mongolia in second and third place respectively.
Gopi is the first Indian man to win the Asian Marathon Championships.