Rajan Thananayagam cuts a noticeable figure at the busy NCC grounds. Quietly observing the goings-on around him, his near perfect posture and physique (even when he’s seated) is that of an athlete. “My dad did want me to be a sportsman,” he smiles, but all young Rajan wanted to do was run around in his [...]


Overcoming fear and taking the plunge

An Ironman contestant since 2011, Rajan Thananayagam was determined to bring Ironman home

Rajan Thananayagam: First Ironman challenge still fresh in his memory

Rajan Thananayagam cuts a noticeable figure at the busy NCC grounds. Quietly observing the goings-on around him, his near perfect posture and physique (even when he’s seated) is that of an athlete. “My dad did want me to be a sportsman,” he smiles, but all young Rajan wanted to do was run around in his then less urbanized hometown of Wattala and climb ambarella trees. He did dabble in sports from rugger to basketball and karate- which he admittedly had to be dragged to.

He would realize his father’s dream decades later in 2011, in a triathlon called the Ironman. Today, Rajan (48) is one part of the team that strove to bring the event to Sri Lanka together with Yasas Hewage and Julian Bolling. Since 2011, Rajan  has completed 11 x Full-distance Ironman races (and still counting) in Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia and has been ranked in the top 1% of his age group (for the 2nd year in a row) in the World Ironman Age-Group ranking -ranked 47th in 2015 – the only Sri Lankan to achieve this.

The fear of doing such an event was always at the back of Rajan’s mind- even as a child. But his curiosity of the unknown and naturally proactive attitude has always led him to lessons and people that have since shaped him. One such person he tells us, was Oosha Saravanamuttu.  Rajan first heard about a ‘dance’ class from a friend which led him to “Aunty Oosha’s” where he became a western classical dancer. Her influence and legendary drive “pushed me to another level” he recalls.

His thirst for adventure found him migrating to Australia with his family in 2001 although he was comfortable in his profession in Sri Lanka.  His new life in Sydney was spent between his work (he is a Chartered Accountant by profession) and white water rafting which he discovered during his ramblings around the city and says “I found the freedom to be a child again.”

But the demands of work and other commitments soon overtook any other time or energy he had for sports. “I was becoming overweight and anti-social,” chained to a desk constantly- “my job was killing me” he admits candidly, even going to a counsellor on a friend’s suggestion. “One day she [the counsellor] asked me if I had been suicidal,” he remembers taking time to answer the question. For Rajan, that day marked a revelation- “I needed to make a change in my life.”

The change began with a triathlon which he was pushed into doing together with a friend. “No way,” was his initial reaction to the 500 m swimming, 20 km cycling and 4 km of running that was involved.  His fear of triathlons, “of the challenge” goes back to his childhood, watching the ABC sports programmes on TV. One image in particular still stands out vividly- that of an exhausted girl at a race, crawling on the ground. “The sheer humanity of it captured my imagination.”  Little did he know then, that the girl was a participant at an Ironman event in Hawaii, and her final struggle was at the last 200m of the race. “Little did I know that what I would be doing what I was so scared of.” Rajan is now training  for his next triathlon to be held in Hawaii later this year.

His first Ironman experience is still fresh in his memory. One of the few South Asians taking part, Rajan also had other more personal challenges to overcome. “I didn’t want to do it for myself,” instead dedicating his race to his father, who along with his brother had died at sea. Their memory combined with his mortal fear of open water only intensified the challenge. Standing on the pier that reached almost two km into the sea a fisherman almost talked him out of the race he had so diligently prepared for. “They had seen sharks in the area.” But the added fear was a turning point for Rajan- “Fear is just a thought” and his logical reassurance was “I have control over my thoughts.” With his new mantra in mind he crossed the finish line with a laminated picture of his father with him. “I actually had fun,” he marvelled and he takes us back to the last 200 m where he finally got closure for the loss of his family.

“Everyone has a beautiful story,” he says, having completed Ironman races in China, Malaysia, New Zealand and Australia. He also noticed how such races held in rural towns helped develop them. For Rajan, “my heart was still in Sri Lanka” and his dream to marry his passion with a chance to do something for his country began around two-three years ago.  He met fellow humanitarians and athletes Yasas and Julian by chance and quickly developed a plan- “we picked this event on what it can do for the country.” With an environment that is ideal for adventure sports Rajan’s strategy with Ironman was also to attract high quality travellers to the country- which make up most international triathletes.

IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo currently taking place in the area around Galle Face to Marine Drive has a few firsts for Sri Lanka and Asia. Yesterday marked IRONKIDS Sri Lanka; which was the first to be held in South Asia. “Ironman transformed me” explains Rajan,the aim of this event is primarily to promote health and wellness for all generations. They had chosen to be environmentally sustainable and are supporting local industries- expanding the event to include all of Sri Lanka. The race also has athletes from “unity teams” from the North, East and South creating a sense of national integration. “It’s a patriotic event,” he adds.

This race also has a unique award, gifted to the last person who crosses the line. To the Ironman community it is “the grit award” a true reflection of all that the race stands for.

As the race comes to a close at 1 p.m. today, the organizers hope to see onlookers cheering the athletes as they cross the line. In every participant is a unique story. As Rajan sums it up- “this is bigger than any of us.”

IRONMAN 70.3 Colombo  concludes today at 1 p.m.

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