Meet the karate champion who thinks beyond medals to help children discover the joy of sports
Sabari Karthik lost his father when he was 11 and went through several struggles during childhood. But that did not deter him from becoming a champion in karate, winning medals for India and embarking on his dream of creating a healthy sports ecosystem for children.
Many Indian sports stars have lived in penury and faced numerous hardships before finding success. Sabari Karthik, 29, is one of them. He fought many odds, and went on to win several laurels for India in karate, including a gold medal at the International Junior Karate Championship in Singapore and silver medals at the South Asian Karate Championship and the Malaysian Open.
The journey wasn’t easy. Sabari, who lost his father at the tender age of 11, had to sustain his family. When he was 15 years old, he started teaching karate at Zen Martial Arts and PSG Sarvajana School in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. Mornings were spent at school, and evenings were spent teaching children sidekicks, elbow strikes, and mid-level punches.
Sabari, and his mother, managed their day-to-day living with the income he received from training and the Rs 4,500 pension the family received. It wasn’t enough for Sabari to pursue his dream of becoming a karate champion, but he put in blood, sweat, and tears. Soon, he began receiving training under the guidance of renowned coach Sensei N Karthikeyan. After that, there was no looking back. He stepped into the big league, got selected to participate in a slew of national and international karate tournaments, and took the world by storm.
However, Sabari was not satisfied with just winning competitions. He wanted to know the real power and benefit of playing sports.
“During my stint as a sportsperson, I realised how important it was for children and individuals to indulge in outdoor games and sports. I wanted to ensure that every child experiences the joy of playing, the flow of energy in their body, and the resultant improvisation in their mental faculties,” Sabari Karthik tells SocialStory.
In 2017, he founded PHASE (Physical Health and Sports Education), a for-profit social enterprise dedicated to helping children channelise their energy in the field of sports. As part of this, the organisation collaborates with schools and assists them to design curriculums, training programmes, and monitoring systems for sports.
Going back to the beginning
Sabari was born and brought up in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. He pursued his primary education at a government school. His father, Gunasekaran, a police officer, prompted him to learn karate when he was just eight years old. That was when he joined Zen Martial Arts.
A few years later, the sudden death of Sabari’s father shook the entire family. But the boy decided to fight back. He worked hard, believed in his dream, and stayed focused. He continued practising karate and soon developed a lot of love for the martial art form.
“As a kid, I was fascinated by different kicks, punch, and fighting. Later I discovered that it's not just the techniques that makes one a champion. It is the mind that matters the most,” he says.
Apart from all the individual practice, Sabari began training children at the academy when he stepped into Class XI. However, through this journey, he did not lose grip on academics. He went on to take up under graduation at PSG College of Technology and then an MBA at KCT Business School.
Sabari’s joy knew no bounds when in 2005 he was selected for his first international tournament, the Karate World Cup in the Philippines.
“It was a struggle initially. I had to run from pillar to post to get sponsorships, the right coaching, and a good support system. I even took a loan of Rs 30,000 from my father’s pension. The repayment further reduced the monthly income. But, somehow I held on and that paid off. I went on to participate and win over 10 national and international competitions,” he recalls.
His achievements include representing India at the Asian Games at China in 2010, bagging a gold and silver medal at South Asian Karate Championship in 2011, winning two bronze medals in the Commonwealth Karate championship in 2009 at South Africa, and a gold medal at the 34th National Games and the National Karate Championship.
Touching the lives of thousands of children
Despite becoming one of India's best known karate champions, Sabari confesses to “feeling empty”. He wanted to be an agent of change in the field of sports, and make a difference in the lives of people around him. This motivated him to pursue the Indian Police Service. He soon moved to Ooty, a hill station in Tamil Nadu, to prepare for Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams.
When there, Sabari joined as a karate trainer at Blue Mountains School. A turning point came when one of his students told him that he found karate boring.
“I was quite taken aback and wanted to know if all the other students felt the same. I found that most of them enjoyed running around and playing games more than practising martial arts. The idea of starting an organisation of my own struck me at that very moment,” Sabari says.
Sabari did not want to train children only to win medals. He wanted children to see the bigger, wider purpose and benefits of sports. He also realised that sports had helped him to be the best version of himself. And, that was the lesson that he wanted to pass on young children.
So, the 29-year-old went back to Coimbatore and established PHASE Sports Pvt. Ltd. with his personal funds. The organisation focuses on shaping children into happy and healthy beings through games and sports at the school level. PHASE collaborates with schools and helps them design and implement sports curriculums and programmes that not only improve physical strength and stamina, but also inculcate skills such as locomotion, stress management, teamwork, communication, and leadership. The organisation charges a reasonable fee from schools for the service.
In the last two years, Sabari’s organisation has helped over 5,000 children across many schools in India. These include Vidya Devi Jindal School in Haryana, Ramakrishna Matriculation School and Vidhya Niketan Public School in Coimbatore as well as Annai Abirami School in Tirupur. The organisation has over 15 employees and is growing.
“My goal is to continue what I am doing and contribute to the sports ecosystem being built in our country.” says Sabari.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)