Paralympian’s heavy lifting in life

Mariappan (in left wheelchair) receiving the aid from Frutiger. With them are Thaarani (left), Chandriga, Gombak Rotary Club past president S. Sen Gupta (right) and public image chair Edwin Lam.

THE Rotary Club of Gombak is recognising the contributions of Mariappan Perumal, one of the country’s most successful para athletes, as part of the 2018-2019 Rotary International theme “Be The Inspiration”.

Melaka-born Mariappan, now 61, was left with permanent disability after contracting polio at the age of three.

Throughout his life, he has had to struggle to make something good out of it.

Looking at photos of Mariappan in his younger days and listening to his story makes it easier to understand how he was able to excel in his chosen arena after moving to Cheras in 1976 to receive care from the Welfare Department and learn carpentry.

Apart from a confident demeanour and charming smile, he was also driven by sheer determination to do his best.

Mariappan has won more than 80 medals at international events in over a dozen countries spanning four continents. — Filepic
Mariappan has won more than 80 medals at international events in over a dozen countries spanning four continents. — Filepic

The country’s first Paralympic medallist, Mariappan lifted his way to two bronze medals at the competition in Seoul (1988), South Korea, and Barcelona (1992), Spain. 

He started bodybuilding and powerlifting in 1980 after meeting a representative from the Society of The Orthopaedically Handicapped (Pocam), who gave him a set of weights so that he could train on his own.

Mariappan was able to win a local powerlifting competition after just three months.

His potential was recognised when Pocam secretary Hugh Storey, who was also his coach, sponsored his trip to represent the country at the International Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Sports Federation Games in London in 1981.

“Storey gave me my chance. He believed in me so much that he sponsored everything from the tickets to my pocket money, and he was so happy when I won,” he recalled.

Since his debut in 1981, Mariappan has won more than 80 medals and his career has taken him to international events in more than a dozen countries spanning four continents.

While his achievements befit a man who has dedicated more than 30 years of his life in pursuit of glory, it is an eye-opener to learn that this seven-time Paralympian (1988, 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012) has also worked as an ice cream seller, a textile company and furniture factory employee, lift attendant, as well as a mailroom assistant to earn a living.

Despite the hardship and circumstances, Mariappan always gave his all to powerlifting and family life.

For 22 years, he and his wife B. Chandriga, who is also afflicted by polio, lived in a people’s housing project (PPR) in Batu Caves with their children.

They endured many difficulties getting to their flat on the first floor as there was no lift.

Three months ago, they moved to another PPR in Jinjang Utara. Although this place has a lift, there are other problems.

“It is better now. We have good neighbours and the flats has a lift, but the place is too small for our wheelchairs,” Chandriga said.

“We can’t even get into the bathroom because the doorway is not wide enough.

“There is also no proper ramp at the main door. We have spoken to the people in charge but have not heard from them yet,” Mariappan added.

Tucked in a corner of their roughly 500sq ft flat are the boxes that hold dozens of medals, newspaper cuttings, plaques, certificates and even an award received from then Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin for his contributions to the nation.

Mariappan’s biggest regret, however, was not being able to snatch a gold in the 1992 Paralympic Games.

“It was a big loss for me, losing that gold medal. I cried after that,” he said, tearing up as he recalled the moment.

“I still like training, but many gyms are located on the first floor so it is not convenient with the wheelchair.

“Gyms with access are far away and I don’t want to travel far because my motorcycle is not so reliable,” he said, explaining that it was damaged in a recent accident.

Since retiring from sports, the unemployed father of three spends his time ferrying his youngest daughter, Thaarani, 14, to and from school, doing housework as well as lifting dumb-bells to pass time.

His older children, Tanuja, 22, and Sreetharan, 20, are studying to be an accountant and electrical technician, respectively.

Rotary Club of Gombak president Hansruedi Frutiger, who visited Mariappan to hand over a cash donation, said the Paralympian serves as an inspiration to those who know of his story.

“We want to recognise Mariappan because he overcame polio to achieve excellence, and we see his accomplishments as a message to Rotarians and the public in general.

“Despite a lack of support, Mariappan has done well for himself, and to be able to provide for his family despite his struggles, is truly an inspiration,” he said.

Hansruedi added that the Rotary Club of Gombak will also present Mariappan and his wife with two new wheelchairs before a formal recognition of his achievements during a dinner on Jan 31.

Two other polio survivors – palliative care specialist Dr. Felicia Chang and Antony Leopold who founded Ace Altair Travel Agency – will also be recognised, alongside Rumah Amal Cheshire president Datin Paduka Khatijah Sulieman, who will receive the Paul Harris Award for her exemplary work in community projects.

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