by Hannah Enightoola and Ria Eustace, the CREN Team
CREN Team members Hannah Enightoola and Ria Eustace recently had the honour of chatting with Rajesh Durbal, a triple-amputee professional triathlete, author, inventor, film producer and former IT engineer who created history in 2010 when he became the world’s first triple amputee to compete and finish in the Iron Man Triathlon Championships in Hawaii, USA. Rajesh was born without fibula bones in both legs and a partially developed right arm. Doctors amputated both legs below the knees and he was fitted with prosthetics at a year and a half. He is the Founder and CEO of Live Free, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to help persons that are lost and suffering become empowered to live their best lives. Rajesh shared his motivations, challenges and successes in competing athletically at a professional level and empowering persons globally.
Rajesh, thanks so much for meeting with us today. Could you tell us what was it like for you growing up in the USA?
My parents are Trinidadian, but I was born in the USA. Growing up was very difficult. You may think that it would be easier in the USA, but it’s tougher in my opinion. You have more competition. School was very rough because I didn’t look like everybody else. Therefore I didn’t fit in. And if you don’t fit in, you’re out casted. It was very difficult to win the approval and acceptance of principals, teachers, peers, family and friends.
You have come a long way from those school days and are now an internationally-known professional triathlete. How did you first get into sports?
Playing sports was always my outlet. When you don’t fit in as a child, you have to find ways to keep occupied and entertain yourself. Through sports I was able to prove to myself that I could do activities that were athletic. I did everything - skateboarding, snowboarding, skiing, hiking and basketball. I tried out for the basketball team in school and made the basketball team. I did sports because it was me doing it for myself.
Congratulations on making history as the world’s first triple amputee to compete and finish in the Iron Man Triathlon Championships in 2010, and then breaking your record in 2011! What motivated you to enter the Iron Man Triathlon Championships?
The triathlon consisted of 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running: 2.4 miles of swimming in the ocean, 112 miles of cycling on the bike through lava fields in Hawaii and a full marathon 26.2 mile run afterward. It was my first triathlon and I trained for a year and a half for it. Before that I didn’t know how to swim, run or ride a bike professionally.
I decided that I was going to challenge myself and I was going to do it in a way that scared me. Triathlon was one of the activities that scared me. I always tell people, what motivates you is not the goal of getting in shape and losing ten pounds. That’s never going to motivate you. What’s going to motivate you and get you to do it is if you already signed up to hike up a mountain that’s going to take you four days. That’s going to motivate you to get in shape and get yourself in gear and create new habits.
And that’s what I did. I signed up for the triathlon and then I had no choice - I had to motivate myself to make it happen.
What challenges did you face in preparing for the Iron Man triathlon?
My number one challenge was: Can I actually do this? I had to come to terms with myself that I could actually accomplish this goal. The second biggest challenge was accepting myself, my flaws, my weaknesses, my disability and all the things that were going wrong during that time. I had to take ownership of that and not allow that to be a crutch anymore to keep me at a lower level. I had to tell myself, “You know what, you have this problem and you can’t change it. You might as well start loving yourself a little bit more and you might as well start being for yourself instead of against yourself.” And as soon as I did that, I was able to let go of insecurities and make a breakthrough within myself personally that enabled me to start training for it.
I would train six days a week while working at my job as an IT engineer, managing staff and projects in a demanding schedule, while also trying to be the best brother, best son and manage life’s challenges too. When you train for Iron Man, you have to change your thoughts and become mentally strong. You have to re-organise your entire schedule to train for it, and this involves changing your habits, rituals and mental thoughts.
Do you still maintain this routine?
Definitely. I might take a break for a couple of weeks, but then I’ll sign up for a race and get a strong and compelling reason to get me right back into my training routine. Usually I’m up at 5 a.m. in the morning and I start running or swimming at 6 a.m. By 7 a.m. I’m finished and I’m ready to hit my day in a positive frame of mind. You put yourself first for the day and that’s important. Many people don’t put themselves first for the day. They wait till the very end of the day to put themselves first. Then they don’t have any energy left because they’re wasted from the stresses and challenges of the day. You have to put yourself first. And I did that training for the Iron Man Championships.
Training and being active is part of who I am and it’s something I do for me. When you move your body it impacts you physiologically and psychologically. You can feel yourself getting stronger. And when you can feel yourself getting stronger, instead of just telling yourself that you’re stronger, it becomes very real. People say they want to feel inspired and they want to feel good, right? My advice is to go out and move your body and do physical activities. You will physically feel stronger, your mind and body will connect and you’ll say “Yes, I’m strong.” And you will feel great about yourself.
For the “No Excuses” motivational Tour in 2012 and the “Live Amazingly” Tour of 2013, you did ground-breaking work in Trinidad and Tobago. You met with the Prime Minister, Ministers and the leaders of our nation. You visited schools, orphanages and schools for children with disabilities, donated care packages and even did a triathlon in Tobago. What motivated you to do this national tour?
I had the opportunity to give back. For me, giving back is more rewarding than my accomplishments. Yes, I have tons of medals and they mean something to me, but giving back and seeing someone excel is the ultimate reward. When I had the opportunity to do that, I had to take advantage of it. My parents are Trinidadian and my heritage is Trinidadian, so it was my way of giving back to the country and giving people that are differently-abled a voice.
I know what it was like twenty years ago here in Trinidad. Differently-abled persons did not really have a voice. People with disabilities were sometimes kept hidden in their houses. I wanted parents and children to feel empowered and realise their value. That was the focus of the entire trip. I was also able to give momentum to the various NGOs here which assist differently-abled persons and help them influence change within their organisations and their communities.
What was the highlight of that first trip, the 2012 “No Excuses” Tour?
A personal reflection for me was being in a place of authority and power in front of persons who had put me down. In the past I had a negative experience with some persons’ poor mindsets of persons who are differently-abled. We can all relate to this in some way or form - you don’t have to have a disability to be able to relate to those challenges. I thought about all the hardship, struggle and pain that I endured at that time. During the tour I realized that I was in a place of authority. I was on television, I was doing radio interviews, meeting the Prime Minister and the Ministers and the leaders of the country were looking up to me.
I thought that was a great victory of my faith and a testimony that people that put you down or make you feel like you’re less of a person do not have the final say in your life.
Congratulations on reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2014! What was your motivation behind this?
Mount Kilimanjaro is in Tanzania and it’s the highest mountain in Africa - over five thousand metres in height. It took us five days to climb - that’s how high it was! My team was made up six persons who were differently-abled, some of whom were amputees, as well as six support persons. It was an adventure which I took on to re-define my life. I like to challenge myself and become a student all over again because it forces me to grow. It took me a year of training to prepare for it.
It felt amazing to finally reach the summit. It took every ounce of energy and every bit of mental fortitude to achieve, but we all did it. We produced a mini-documentary called Beyond Boundaries to capture our journey.
Could you tell us about your organisation, the Live Free Foundation?
Our mission is to help people who are lost, in suffering and need hope. Our platform consists of Prosthetic research and development, life coaching, training seminars, health and wellness programmes, adaptive sports clinics and specialty products for people who run or amputees who need specialty equipment. We encourage and empower persons to live amazingly.
You are passionate about empowering and motivating others to fulfill their dreams. But what motivates you?
I don’t take life for granted - you don’t get these moments again. Every time I feel sorry for myself, I think, “I’m not going to be here for eternity. I have to take charge of the moments that I have.” I have strong reasons for doing what I do. My motivation is so strong that I can emotionally feel it and it can bring me to tears if I meditate on it. It’s to the point where my physical body reacts to it. What motivates me is my family, my niece and my nephew, contributing in a profound way, leaving my mark in this world and staying true to myself. I know my most core, authentic self and that motivates me to stay true to that. That’s how you motivate others. When you’re fired up and excited about who you are, you can share that passion with everyone.
With regards to the treatment of persons who are differently-abled, what is your dream for Trinidad and Tobago? And how can we make this dream a reality?
We need more programmes to educate people about disability. We have to get that support from the leaders and then it will trickle down to the public. We have to support diversity in our schools and communities. The schools need more diversification than the traditional schooling. The more we promote individuality and allow people to be creative and express themselves, the more we’ll start seeing positive changes in how people think. We’ll see people that are differently-abled become more accepted because then we’d all realise that it’s okay to have your own individuality and we’d support that.
Let’s not forget that the individual person has the choice to stand up and say, “I’m not going to be put aside and overlooked. I’m going to make choices every day to bring out my best.” We each have personal power. Everybody has challenges. But if somebody wants to change, you actually have to go and make yourself change. Everybody has to do that for himself.
Do you have a message for Caribbean persons reading this article?
Try! You have to at least try. Who cares if you aren’t perfect? Who cares if you have no clue how to do it? Who cares if you’re bad at it? Who cares if people laugh at you? Everybody at one point was a student and did not know how to be successful. The only difference between somebody who is at where you want to be and somebody who is not is that they tried. They tried, they got into the game, they failed, they failed forward, they kept on trying and they did it no matter what.
A lot of people have no clue what they want to do and are just floundering around. And my advice to them is to try everything. If you try everything then you should have everything that you want. If you have a goal that you want to accomplish, go and do it and don’t settle for what’s going on in society and crime and people’s mentalities. Get yourself up, keep on going and do it.