One look at Renjith and anyone would say he's an athlete - lean, tall, muscular. Surekha on the other hand, looks petite in comparison. At one glance no one would say that they are a dynamic duo who have made records in their respective sport.
Renjith Maheswary won the gold medal in Asian Grand Prix (2012) and set a new national record of 17.30 meters in Indian Grand Prix at Bengaluru on 11th July 2016. Surekha became the first Indian pole vaulter to clear 4.00 meters by jumping 4.05 meters to set a new national record. At the National Open Championships in New Delhi, in November 2014, she improved on this record by clearing 4.15 meters.
Meet triple jumper Renjith Maheshwary and pole vaulter Surekha Renjith. Married over a decade now, both have been the epitome of support and encouragement for each other.
For Renjith, it's been a roller coaster ride with success and failure but he's held on fast to his determination not letting the lows affect him. It was in 2013, that Renjith got (in)famous for failing the doping test but thanks to Surekha's unending support and motivation, he was able to get through that phase. It was this controversy made him lose the Arjuna Award that he was nominated for. And suddenly people had started recognising him for his failure, instead of his sporting success.
'It affected my entire family. Everybody was pointing fingers, talking about it to them. But my family, my in-laws, and especially Sureka never stopped believing in me. They were my rock. My friends watched out for me. They kept in touch, checking if I was okay from time to time', says Renjith as he gets comfortable in the couch for a chat with The Bridge.
On 11th July 2016 the headlines read, 'Renjith makes a new Indian record of 17.30 meters in Indian Grand Prix meet at Bengaluru'.
It was a glorious moment for him. All that he had been toiling for, all his efforts had now taken shape by marking a new record in Indian Triple Jump history.
He had proved himself and risen like a phoenix.
Born in Channanikadu in Kottayam, Kerala, Renjith started showing an interest in athletics right from his childhood. With a supportive family, Maheshwary was initially mentored by Evegeniy Shivilli and was a part of Kerala Sports Council's summer camp at the age of nine, where he was encouraged to take up athletics seriously and train in the triple jump by Kerala-based coach VA George.
His turning point was in his higher secondary year, when he won gold and later bronze at the Junior National Championship in Bangalore. Renjith was then mentored at the Sports Authority of India in Quilon under the coaching of Udayakumar, who has also been the coach of the gold medal winning Indian kabaddi teams in both the 2002 and 2006 Asian Games.
And from this particular moment, Renjith started his journey as a triple jumper. He represented India for the first time internationally at the 2006 Asian Games where he finished fourth.
'2007 is a memorable year for me. I jumped 17.19m to win the gold at the Asian Championships and set a new national record. Also, I got engaged to Surekha that year,' he says, trying to maintain a professional tone and avoiding any eye contact with Surekha who is seated right across him.
The triple jumper had also represented India at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, where he won the bronze medal in the triple jump event as he finished third. He secured a gold medal in the 2012 Asian Grand Prix. He even participated in the 2007, 2011 and 2013 editions of the World Championships and is a three-time Olympian.
Surekha's sports interest also started during her childhood as a long jumper. It was during high school that she started practicing pole vault under Coach Nagaraj at Prime Sports Academy in Chennai and with technical help from former pole vaulter Manick Raj, she was able to train for the National Level.
Her first national record was 3.51 m, which was set at the 43rd Open National Athletic Championship in Bangalore on 28 September 2003. Three years later, Surekha became the first Indian vaulter to clear 4.00 meters by jumping 4.05 to set a new national record on 5 September 2006 in New Delhi. She bettered this record by clearing 4.15 meters at the National Open Championships in New Delhi, eight years later, in November 2014.
'Unlike other sports, each and every muscle needs to be fit and agile to bend the pole. This is very challenging and this difficulty level actually intrigued me to take it up,' says Surekha.
'My parents and my husband have been a pillar of support,' she says with an emotional tone.
A life of all work and no play
With the husband and wife duo training for the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games coming up in 2018, training is not easy for them. They are concentrating hard on their dreams and are leaving no stone unturned.
But however not everything is working out exactly the way they would prefer it to.
'We practice at JLN stadium at Chennai but many a times, the stadium is booked for events and on those days we are not allowed to use the venue. This really disrupts our training and on those days we have to hunt for venues to train. This is difficult because the other venues may not be well maintained and may pose a threat of injury to us', quips Surekha.
These may small areas of concern but for serious athletes who are aiming for the international competitions, it is very important as it intermittently disrupts their training and may affect their performance in the long run. Plus practicing at poorly maintained grounds poses a great risk of injury.
'We wish the authorities would not book the stadium during time zones where the sports practices are not disturbed for those who are training here', suggests Renjith.
'Of course we have the SAI camp at the national level for training but it's not easy leaving family behind to go train there', believes Renjith.
The couple have two daughters. Their elder daughter, Jhiya, is 7. The younger one, Sparsha is just a year old and Surekha just got back to training after her second maternity break.
Even in Chennai the stadium is 2 km from where they live but they find this more practical option than going to the capital to train.
"This is difficult for me as commuting takes most of my time and this affects my training,' she says.
'I have to look at these factors. People are quick to criticise sportsmen who fail but nobody understands the background and the situations that they are training in. No one is interested in hearing our grievances because it will sound more like excuses to them. But the fact it these are also real factors which affect the performances and should be addressed.'
Every sportsman goes through stages and every stage makes or breaks him. As students we had no worries but to just concentrate on our goal and give our 100%. But when we grow older we have responsibilities of parents and families that we need to shoulder, work responsibilities that need to be fulfilled. So at every stage the mindset of an athlete is different.
With an income from a Government job, two kids, two sets of parents to care for and two sportspersons from the same family to train, finances are always a challenge. 'Athletics lacks sponsorship and this is a huge disadvantage for us,' says Renjith. Just basic household expenses, school fees, sending money back home exhausts Renjith's income of INR 50,000 leaving hardly anything for their training and sporting needs.
"Though we are both employed by the Government and get our salaries from them, a huge chunk just goes in taking care of our household and family. So what happens is that we have to prioritize our needs then and start cutting down on our expenses towards our dream because of course we can't compromise on providing for our family if we are to only spend exclusively on our sporting requirements, medical needs and supplements.'
With Renjith's family in their hometown, Surekha's parents have been a big support in taking care of their children when they are away.
'We wake up as early as 5 a.m. and come for practice by 7:30 a.m. to the stadium after dropping off our older daughter to school.
After finishing their office work and other chores, it becomes difficult for them to come back all the way to the stadium. So they train at Ramachandra College Ground in Porur which is closer to their home.
The duo recently participated in the National Athletics Championship meet held at JLN Stadium in Chennai from 25th - 28th September, representing the Railways where they both work. With both suffering a health setback due to a viral infection, their performance was not worthy of mention. Renjith came fourth and Surekha was at the sixth position. After his Grand Prix win and Surekha's maternity break this was their next significant sporting competition.
'While most elite athletes chose to drop this Championship as they are preparing for the bigger games, we chose to participate in order to not disappoint the Railways department, where we are currently employed,' says Renjith.
When asked if they were disappointed with their performance Surekha said, 'We are concentrating on the bigger competitions next year and that what is we have set our eye on!'
Renjith and Surekha's partnership goes a long way. It was in Asian Games Camp in 2004 where they first met each other. What initially started as a friendship, later blossomed into romance and after courting for a few years, they jumped a leap and tied the knot in 2009 with the blessings of their family.
The way they complement each other is remarkable. Each swear by the other's support as being the most important thing that keeps them motivated to persevere and do better. Being from the same sports background, they are able to incorporate a lifestyle of discipline and training constantly motivating each other to bring out their best.
'Had I married a person from outside sports, I doubt if I would still be pursuing my passion,' says Surekha. 'It's certainly helpful to be sharing the same passion because this helps us to understand each other's aspirations and give the support that the other needs. He is still my friend first and then my husband.'
After Surekha's maternity break, it was Renjith who coerced her to get back to form.
'He told me that this is the age when I could still follow my dreams. Later on you should not have any regrets left in life,' says Surekha with respect and admiration in her eye for her spouse.
"My entire time goes in training and finishing my office work and we have to again get to practice in the evening and this hardly leaves me any time to be a mother or a daughter,' she complains.
'Renjith has seen it all- the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, reached the Olympics. I have a lot left to achieve and if I don't do it now then it will be never!'
'I have missed watching my older daughter grow and somewhere this makes me feel guilty as a mother. There have been many times when I have questioned myself and my choices, am I being a good mother, am I giving enough time to my kids?'
'Renjith and I just have enough time to drop her at school and rush to our practice. When I get back home in the evenings she is mostly asleep in bed. My parents have been instrumental in taking care of my kids and raising them.'
But then a talent like her also has greater roles to play and we need more women like her to motivate other women to pursue their goals, set examples and break stereotypes. Getting back in action after a second maternity break, is not easy especially for a career as physically demanding as this.
Even Renjith feels his share of guilt. 'Sometimes I think we both are so consumed by our ambition, that we wonder if we are doing enough for our children. Sometimes we bring Jhiya to the field to watch us practise, so she understands what we do and we try to spark that interest in her. But she being a kid wants to sometimes become a dancer, and at times a teacher. Am looking at taking a break in a couple of years and take out time for my children and seriously train them in something.'
Asking her about her future aspirations, Surekha says, 'The Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games are next on the cards for both of us. Even Renjith is yet to win a medal at the Asian Games and this being my next big championship after my maternity break we are both putting in our 100% in our practice sessions.'
Asking about the doping controversies that Renjith was surrounded in, 'It was a very tough phase for us,' says Surekha.
'I was there and I know the whole story. He was unwell suffering from a cold and a cough and he was prescribed the cough medicine by the doctor. Unfortunately, the drug prescribed had a banned substance. Even though we presented the medical prescriptions, records, and proofs, it was not accepted.'
Renjith was ranked World Number 3, when he was suspended for a period of three months after his A sample tested positive. Surprisingly, there was no request to test the 'B' sample by Renjith, which is a normal route an athlete takes.
The National Dope Test Laboratory's (NDTL) analysis showed the athlete to be having an unusually high amount of ephedrine, in his system. 10 to 15 micrograms of ephedrine is the normal amount found in the system in case of prescriptive administration, as reported in the Indian Express.
On 19 September 2013, Sports Ministry of India announced that he would not be given Arjuna Award over the allegations of doping pending against him. Earlier his name figured among the list of Arjuna Awardees for 2013 and he had even attended the rehearsals for that. After coming so close to something as big as this, it was a huge disappointment for him.
'Yes it was a very tough time,' says Renjith. 'It wasn't just about missing the award because that is not what I had been training for but my entire reputation and hard work of years had come crashing down and even my family members bore the brunt of it from the people around them,' says Renjith.
'But thanks to my friends, my family, and especially Surekha who helped me overcome that phase. She kept my spirits up and pushed me to keep going on.'
Coming out of a controversy like this is not easy for anyone and it takes grit and determination to overcome it. This failure suddenly overshadowed all the success that he had garnered through the years.
'The Arjuna Award or any award is not my goal. My goal is to better my performances and outdo my competitors and that is what I always need to focus on. Of course I was insulted and belittled and pointed fingers at. More people knew me from this controversy than they knew me for my performance,' says Renjith.
With many sports person now questioning the Arjuna Awards selection process, receiving the award has lost its charm. The concept of recommending or nominating someone for the awards itself is flawed. A player should not have to apply for the award but the committee should pick the winners on their own on the basis of performances but that is not being the case these days.
'Media is also quick to sensationalize these sorts of issues. Performances are not written about as much as failures are highlighted," says Renjith pointing at the double standards by the media. Had the media not sensationalised his doping results based on only one sample but had instead supported him by demanding for the sample B test, maybe things would have turned differently for Renjith.
He also feels that India lacks in supporting the middle-level athletes and sportsmen. 'The problem with our government is that they keep promoting and rewarding the winners repeatedly, ignoring the upcoming athletes.'
The middle level athletes who have to come up as the next set of achievers are often ignored and not given the platform or opportunities that can actually help them reach the top. This he feels is a huge drawback and disadvantage. And especially when it comes to a sport which is an individual event, it is even more difficult to get the attention of the authorities as politics is rampant at the selection level.
'Now that we have a new Sports Minister, I have hopes that he will sort out the politics in the system as he comes from a background where he is aware of the difficulties that sportsmen are facing', he hopes.
From victories to disappointments, from praises to controversies, the couple has seen it all. And if anything they have only emerged stronger and better than before. With a good sponsor and better training, the duo can definitely sharpen their skills and shine internationally as they certainly have the grit, determination and fire in them to help them get to the top. And this is what champions are made of.