After international laurels, a sportsman left in the lurch has not given up hopes yet
On November 17 2013, Rajendran Mani, a former Indian Air Force soldier created history at Budaors, Hungary, winning the World Bodybuilding and Physique Sports Championship in the men’s 90 kg event.
You would think that he might have received a hero’s welcome when he returned to the country, and showered with gifts and cash awards.
For Rajendran, 42, who had trained for the event under great financial stress and was able to travel to Budaors only because a well-wisher had sponsored his air tickets at the last moment, none of it happened.
Rajendran Mani at Budaors after winning the World Championship title in 2013
On the contrary, he had to shut down his once thriving gym in New Delhi, pack up his bags and return to his hometown, Chennai.
Rajendran, who was at the peak of his sports career when he won the world title and was just a step away from taking a shot at the Mr. Olympia title - the highest honour for any bodybuilder - has stopped training ever since.
“I was totally broke. Bodybuilding, especially in the heavyweight class, is a very expensive sport. It’s like keeping an elephant at home and feeding it.
“We need to spend a lot of money on our diet, which includes intake of plenty of food supplements,” says Rajendran, slowly opening up and sharing things that he has bottled up in his heart for the last nearly two years.
Rajendran had all along defied the odds to rise to the top, but could not carry on the fight after his world championship triumph, as the gymnasium he was running in New Delhi with a partner started making enormous losses.
He had taken to body building since his teenage years in Chennai, where he had won medals at the district level.
He joined Indian Air Force in 1996. He won his first bodybuilding championship in IAF in 2002, and later remained the undisputed inter-services champion in the 90 kg class for six years (2004-2010).
Rajendran training at the gym before his world title triumph
In 2005 he won the first of his many national championships and in 2009 bagged the Mr. Asia title.
Sadly, though, he took voluntary retirement from the Air Force in 2010, after he was denied a promotion even after winning an international title.
Later, he teamed up with a partner and started a fully air-conditioned gymnasium at Patel Nagar in New Delhi. The 2500 square feet gym became an instant hit and within no time had enrolled 300 members.
It provided income for the family and also the money that Rajendran required to maintain his diet. Just when everything seemed hunky-dory, problems began to crop up in the gym, with trainers dropping out one by one.
Rajendran led a comfortable life in New Delhi before his gymnasium ran up losses
“We started making losses, but somehow we managed to pull on till 2013. I won the world title in November 2013 and in the very next month we sold the gym and returned to Chennai,” he says.
Forsaken and forgotten, with no one to support or encourage him, Rajendran quit training and could not even defend his title at the 2014 World Championship that was held in Mumbai.
“I became mentally disturbed. I could not focus on training,” says Rajendran, who suddenly found it difficult to even meet household expenses.
He is now living in a small rented house in Tambaram with his wife and two sons, waiting for that one breakthrough, which can put him back on track to chase his unfulfilled dream of winning the Mr. Olympia title.
Rajendran on his favourite motorbike
“After the World Championship, it is the Mr. Olympia title that every bodybuilder aspires to win,” says Rajendran, who had dropped out of school after Class Six and later passed Class Ten through a distance education course he had enrolled after joining IAF.
The second child among six siblings he grew up in hard circumstances and wanted to be a sportsman like his father.
His father, a mason by profession, was also a boxer and used to take part in tournaments organised by YMCA in Chennai during the 1970s.
“I became fitness conscious from a very early age. My father was a great fan of actor MGR, who maintained his physique well.
“I tried my hand at boxing for some time. Father also knew silambam (an ancient martial art of Tamil Nadu) and stuntmen from cine-field took training from him.
“With that contact I joined a stunt master at the age of 16 and trained under him for couple of years,” he says, reminiscing his teenage years.
Rajendran with his wife and two sons
In 1996, he joined IAF, and served in Pune, Jodhpur and New Delhi.
“It was only after our second son was born, he decided to pursue body building seriously,” says his wife Priscilla Jayanthi, who is also his personal dietician and motivator.
“Daddy is my hero and role-model. I have seen how hard he had trained to win the world championship,” says Benjamin, Rajendran’s first son, studying in Class Ten, and an athlete doing 100 metres and 200 metres events.
“My father is my coach. My ambition is to become the fastest person in the world and beat Usain Bolt’s record,” he says.
Rajendran is running a food supplements shop, which provides him some income to support his family.
He hopes to find a partner to start a gym in Chennai which could provide him the income to fund his training to take part in the Mr. Olympia championship.
This Article is part of the 'Unsung Heroes of Tamil Nadu' series