There is a Japanese geisha on his right forearm, what looks like a Greek arm band on his left upper arm, an alien on his left leg and something he regrets even more on his spine. “Don’t ask,” says 25-year-old Neil D’Silva about the four mindless tattoos that seem to have materialized on his athletic body when it used to be frail. Etched during a blurry four years full of rave parties, white powders, needles and desperate trips to Goa, the permanent tattoos remind this cheery Kandivli man about the time he became, in his own words, “a disgrace” to his unsuspecting parents. “I’m going to have the tattoos erased as soon as I start earning. Not on my parent’s money,” says D'Silva, clearly regretful of the debt he has piled up during his journey from former drug addict to obsessive triathlon addict whose slew of Ironman medals now not only inspires his social media followers but also school kids who sometimes ask him all the wrong details.
Right now, D’Silva is telling us his story with his legs wrapped inside a black contraption that hisses from time to time as it cools his muscles. He is seated on the bed in his room that could pass for a fitness studio. It packs a sponsored treadmill, two bicycles that cost a few fixed deposits, a smart trainer that simulates (or as D’Silva says “stimulates”) various cycling terrains virtually and three frames on his bedside wall--a gift from his best friend--that each show an animated man swimming, cycling and running: the three components of a triathlon. Every now and then, the door to D’Silva’s room opens and in comes either his father with fresh pineapple juice or his mother with a plateful of boiled sweet potatoes for the obsessive inhouse athlete who has completed four overseas Half Ironman events so far. His most recent medal came this October from Ironman 70.3 in Turkey which he finished in good time for someone who started training two years ago: four hours and 39 minutes.
Lean and tall, the 25-year-old seems to bear no resemblance to the chubby boy who smiles from a picture taken during his teens. That boy had deflated very quickly after finishing twelfth grade when, as a commerce student, D’Silva found himself in the company of a bunch of older boys who experimented with cocaine and other mind-altering drugs. D’Silva--whose Facebook post describes his life as “fun, even heady” recalls: “I wasted four years of my life.” He can’t forget the morning he stumbled back home after one of his many desperate trips to Goa as a broke teenager. That’s when his father, Nixon, smelt the addict in him. Till then, “we were too innocent to even suspect him of being an addict,” says his mother Leena, a banker and cancer survivor who described the knowledge of her son’s addiction as “more shocking and heartbreaking” than the time she was diagnosed with the terminal disease.“My husband was my pillar. He said he had full faith that our boy would mend his ways,” she says about Nixon who immediately dragged his son to Fr Joe Pereira of Kripa Foundation, the rehab centre in which D’Silva spent two months.
Clarity arrived on March 6, 2015, right in the middle of a rave party in a friend’s house. “That’s when I realised I was losing the plot again and decided to quit overnight,” says D’Silva, a gym rat who took to his passion for running with a vengeance after that epiphany. Soon, another overnight decision saw D’Silva giving up cigarettes too after a family friend, Godfrey DeBritto, told him casually that his pace would improve if he gave up smoking. “I used to smoke a packet and a half a day,” says D’Silva, who saw his running time improve by 30 minutes in the span of two years. Now addicted to the runners’ high, he participated in various half marathons. Ironman--a triathlon whose social media buzz began to infect India two years ago--then gave D’Silva a goal and soon, he was making trips to public and private swimming pools near Kandivli.
Keen to fuel the expensive dream of their son,the senior D’Silva's burnt their fixed deposits into equipment. In return, D’Silva would wake up at 5 am daily to run and even go on weekly cycling trips to Lonavla under the careful watch of his friends Aditya or Neeraj. He now plans to prepare young athletes for Asian Games of 2022.