‘Willpower can move mountains.’ The age-old saying stands true for 33-year-old Rajinder Singh Rahelu.
Even though his polio-stricken legs cannot carry his weight, his arms are strong enough to lift national titles. He has brought glory to the country — bagging scores of medals — and his crowning glory came when the Arjuna Award (handicapped category) was conferred upon him recently.
All of India would know double-trap shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore shooting down silver at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, but not many barring Rahelu’s relatives and natives of his village Mehsampur in Jalandhar - know that only a few days later the powerlifter clinched a bronze at the Paralympic Games.
“The award has placed me at par with fully fit sportspersons. What else can a physically challenged person ask for,” says Rajinder with glitter in his eyes.
Years back, when Rahelu’s parents were told that their son had been afflicted with polio, their world had come crashing down. They wouldn’t have imagined that one day their son would overcome the ‘hurdle’ and graduate to a level where very few sportspersons are able to reach in their entire career.
The lifter has not only won national titles in the disabled category, but also won laurels in the general category. His determination saw him bag gold in the Asian Bench Press Championship in New Delhi (2002). That too in the general category! Hasn’t he slapped heartless fate on its face?
"Rajinder has not only made us but the country proud. When he was afflicted by polio, we had never, in our wildest dreams, thought he would make a name for himself in the future … and that the country would recognise his talent," says a beaming father, Ratan Singh.
"As a kid, he himself didn’t have the slightest idea of what he would be when he grew old," says Ratan.
"It was by chance that he took up the sport. A friend, Surinder Rana, initiated him into the sport and soon he was making headlines," says Rahelu’s father.
"After completing my higher secondary, I didn’t want to pursue stud ies. I started repairing scooters and almost made it my life. For three years I did this job, but somehow, I was n’t satisfied. I yearned for recognition. Then, Rana asked me if I would take up powerlift ing," says Rahelu, reflecting on his past.
"Initially, I was quite apprehensive about the idea. I was haunted by the big question whether I’ll be able to do it? But, thanks to my friend’s perseverance, I not only took to the sport with renewed vigour but also lifted 70kg in my first-ever benchpress." And life was never the same again.
"When I lifted that kind of weight, the coach at the gymnasium told me I had the potential and if I continued working on it, I’d make a mark in the sport. That pat did the magic and I started taking the sport seriously,” Rahelu recalls.
Within a span of six months, the lift improved to 115kg and he won his first championship, the Punjab Open Meet in 1997. After that there was no looking back. Titles, records, triumphs, all became part of Rahelu’s life.
To add more ‘weight’ to his performance, he took admission in the Ramagaria College, Phagwara, as the college is renowned for its weightlifting coaches.
“Captain Payara Singh and DP Manjit Singh have shaped my carrier,” Rahelu says with reverence for his coaches visible in his eyes.
But it was not that everything came on a platter. Apart from toiling for hours at the local Pehalwan Hukham Singh gym, Rahelu had to literally sweat it out in order to arrange funds for international outings, including Rs 70,000 for his trip to the 2004 Paralympics Games in Athens, where he won the bronze.
“Barring the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006, I have had to arrange funds for all international trips myself. Due to the financial crunch, I could not participate in three world meets,” he remarks.
“Had it not been for one of my relatives, Jaswant Singh, I would not have been where I am today. He not only contributed from his pocket but also arranged money from his friends.” The youngest of five siblings, including two sisters, Rahelu’s father plays for a marriage band.
To supplement his father’s earnings, the Mehsampur lifter joined computer classes and is now working as a computer teacher in a government school. “To contribute in my family’s day to day requirements and to continue my sport, I took to teaching. I also give tuitions in the evening to supplement my income,” he says.
Rahelu is thankful that, at last, his efforts have been recognised, but he wants the Punjab government to come forward and help him. “Now that the country has given me recognition, I hope the state government will consider my case and offer me a suitable job,” says Rahelu.