Palpating on a wheelchair, his palms felt unusually sweaty inside the Las Vegas Convention Center in the United States, Anand Arnold gazed at the crowd cheering him on. He had just completed his performing act in Mr Olympia (Wheelchair) 2018 category.
Though the 33-year-old had not won the main title and the freezing temperature of December made him uneasy, he still felt proud.
“If someone had told me in the late ’90s that I would travel to the United States in 2018 for a bodybuilding championship, I would have laughed or probably pitied myself,” Arnold, who was diagnosed with spinal cancer at 15, tells The Better India.
When the doctors operated on him, he was left paralysed from the neck down. He was completely immobile, unable to eat or do anything on his own. He remained bed-ridden for the next three years post which his upper body healed due to physiotherapy.
The incident was devastating for the teenager who was at the time preparing for the bodybuilding championship just like his elder brother. The immobility had crushed his dreams or so he thought.
With immense help from his family and friends, Arnold embarked on a relentless struggle against pain and disability and became India’s first wheelchair-bound bodybuilder. His resilience inspired writer Allen Woodman to write about him in ‘Weightless: A True Story of Courage and Inspiration’.
The braveheart has won over 40 titles, including Mr India, Mr Punjab and Mr North India. He has also won a national gold medal in arm wrestling. He has qualified for Mr Olympia, Wheelchair (2018, 2019) and 2019 PRO super Toronto show in Canada.
He shares with us his remarkable story of grit and guts.
Battling Cancer & Paralysis
Arnold was born in Ludhiana, Punjab, in 1986. He has an elder brother, who also was a bodybuilder, and two sisters. His father was in the Air Force. Following his brother’s footsteps, Arnold took interest in developing a strong physique from a young age.
At 13, he started his journey and even won the title of Mr Golden Ludhiana in the same year. At such a tender age, he dreamt of participating in international competitions. His determination was such that it left everyone around him impressed. Some of his friends started training under him and following his workout regime.
A few months later his lower back started hurting during the workout but he avoided the signs and two years later he was diagnosed with cancer.
Recalling that fateful night that brought his life to a standstill, Arnold says, “The pain was unbearable and I felt like cutting out my lower back. We rushed to the hospital where the doctor declared it was the last stage of cancer and that I wouldn’t survive for more than a year if not immediately operated on. The surgery saved me but left me in a vegetable-like state. My worst nightmare had come true.”
At 15, Arnold stared at his crushed dreams. His parents and siblings became his pillars, who did not pity him but instead pushed him to take physiotherapy and get back to bodybuilding.
Amit Gill, his childhood friend, was another strong support. The adamant friend visited him daily and when his upper body returned to normalcy, it was Amit who suggested he return to the gym for workouts.
“I have known Arnold all my life and we are like brothers. How could I see my brother giving up on life so easily? It pained me but I put on a brave face and filled him with hope and positivity. I knew he had the potential to do what he does best. Today, when he wins competitions, I feel the proudest,” Amit tells The Better India.
Battling against pain, Arnold regained partial mobility and survived cancer.
Getting Back to the Pavilion
On a sweltering afternoon in 2005, Amit carried Arnold, put him on his two-wheeler and took him to the gym. On the way, Arnold tried to gather all the courage and will to face the gym that he thought was a thing of the past.
“Upon entering, I suddenly got this energy seeing the equipment and people exercise. I went there the next day and the day after. Before I knew it, six months passed and I started regaining my muscles. My stamina increased along with my willpower. I tried to focus on exercise instead of pain,” says Arnold.
Under his coach and mentor, Ravi Parashar, he started with shoulders followed by biceps and once the body responded well, they indulged in an intensive workout. By the time he turned 20, he was back competing in local competitions and even started training people in bodybuilding and general fitness-related workouts.
That said, Arnold gets recurring pains every couple of months. The cancer weakened a few bones which were replaced with bone cement. This cement, he says, dislocates while travelling or due to intense exercises. But despite the excruciating pain, Arnold has religiously focused on a disciplined diet regime.
“I focus on my diet comprising eggs, chicken and vegetables. Proteins and carbs give me the strength to deal with pain. My other coping mechanism includes getting a pep talk from Parashar, Amit and my family,” he adds.
It is probably this very determination and nerves of steel that has allowed Arnold to explore other arenas apart from bodybuilding. In his decade-long career, he has collaborated with several fitness companies as an ambassador and model. Not just that, he has also acted in movies and ads. Recently, he even signed a deal with a filmmaker for his biopic.
Arnold’s participation in competitions and active engagements with his students leaves very little room for him to think about his past. When he looks back at what he has overcome, he feels proud. Despite what the doctors told him about his short life span or his limited mobility, Arnold didn’t let that get in the way of what he truly wanted.
He says, “I owe my everything to the people around me who stood by me through thick and thin. I want to give the same support, care and love to others. No disease, condition, or problem can stop you unless you allow it to.”
Edited by Yoshita Rao