Rotorua's Darryn Onekawa lowered one of his 58cm biceps, bent his legs - each thigh about 78cm around, picked up giggling daughter Aaliyah and held her like a delicate doll against his barrel chest.

Aaliyah, 4, twirled around Onekawa's latest medal. It's from his sixth place finish at the recent 2017 Arnold Classic Australia bodybuilding championships in Melbourne - a top finish that reclaimed his No1 New Zealand bodybuilder ranking. Onekawa was congratulated after the show by the competition's creator - Arnold Schwarzenegger, still the world's most famous bodybuilder, winning six Mr Olympia trophies in a row.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, still the world's most famous bodybuilder, winning six Mr. Olympia trophies in a row congratulates Darryn Onekawa. Photo/Supplied
Arnold Schwarzenegger, still the world's most famous bodybuilder, winning six Mr. Olympia trophies in a row congratulates Darryn Onekawa. Photo/Supplied

It was a "comeback competition" for Onekawa, 41, who slimmed down to 120kg and 4 per cent body fat, after five years out of the sport.

Onekawa beamed at his daughter. A genuine, confident smile that hadn't appeared across his face much during his time out after the athlete suffered badly from depression.

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"I went from everything being rosy and hunky dory in my life and being at the top of my sport and then some bad stuff happened - life took a different course and I found myself right down the bottom and as a result I went through some very dark times," Onekawa said.

"I got to the point where I was holding a handful of pills, that was where it was at, and the thing that flashed into my mind was I've got to be there for my daughter and that scared the living s*** out of me. I needed to do something.

"Depression is not something that you're like - 'yep you're all right now mate, off you go, thanks a lot, cheers' and you wake up one day and you're fine. It's something that stays with you for life. Depression is like a dog that sticks its claws into your back and every now and again it can try and dig its claws in again. It doesn't discriminate - it doesn't matter who you are.

"I never thought that kind of thing could affect me but it did. I was at the lowest of lows and one of the biggest things I want to be campaigning for is the importance of being able to speak up and say 'I need help. I need to talk to someone'."

At his lowest Onekawa ballooned to an "unhealthy" 160kg, 1.8m frame, and had 35 per cent body fat. He said a turning point came after he was stuck in a climbing apparatus at a children's playground.

"Aaliyah wanted me to join in like some of the other parents were and follow her on the bigger playground adventure fun," he said. "I just remember getting wedged in because of my size. I was unhealthy, unfit and not in a good place mentally and physically.

"I just wanted to be the best dad I could be - something had to give," he said. "That's why the bodybuilding show was something to aim for to use as an aid. For me it was about accomplishing and working on myself mentally and physically to get better. For me my goal was to be better than I was last time - but more importantly I wanted it to doing something that was bigger than just me and incorporate my daughter.

Rotorua's professional bodybuilder Darryn Onekawa (right) poses with daughter Aaliyah, 4. Photo/Ben Fraser
Rotorua's professional bodybuilder Darryn Onekawa (right) poses with daughter Aaliyah, 4. Photo/Ben Fraser

"She became, without even realising it, the motivation for me to keep pushing forward. In this sport the biggest question is always 'what's your why?' My daughter is my why and I should have piggy-backed on that earlier in the dark times."

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It took little more than 16 weeks for Onekawa, who turned professional in bodybuilding during 2009, to reach physical competition condition. At his peak he trained up to five hours a day at Anytime Fitness, Rotorua, with the help of training partner - local Richie Belvie and lived off a strict diet of mainly oats, chicken and rice.

Local Darryn Onekawa got in shape quickly for the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia bodybuilding championships in Melbourne. Photo/Supplied
Local Darryn Onekawa got in shape quickly for the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia bodybuilding championships in Melbourne. Photo/Supplied

"I was five years older so the body doesn't respond as quickly - I'd also ballooned in size and didn't have a lot of time to get in shape," he said. "Where I drew my strength from was through my daughter and the support from my family and close friends also helped."

Onekawa, who affiliates with Tuhoe, said he "loved" being back on stage competing again and said he was inspired to incorporate his Maori roots into the original poses part of the show.

"It's important for me to acknowledge my ancestry and I wanted to show Maori culture on an international stage," he said. "Melbourne was certainly an experience I'll not forget in a hurry and to quote Arnold himself - 'I'll be back!'"

Onekawa is an unlikely bodybuilder. He was bullied because of his "skinny frame" and grew up playing with rugby in his school days for Rotorua Boys' High.

But it was Onekawa's dad Don, who passed away aged 59 after a heart attack, that inspired the now walking muscle chart man - as if lifted from the wall of biology class and - in the search for another athletic outlet.

"When I was 14, I was at home sick one day from school and my dad came home from the gym and he said 'here boy have a watch of this'. It was the Mr Olympia video from 1989, I watched it and that planted the seed. I started training when I was 17 - in school I had played a lot of rugby but I wanted something else to occupy my time. I went to a local gym and someone approached me and said you should try doing a bodybuilding show and the rest as they say is history."

Darryn Onekawa takes to the stage at the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia bodybuilding championships in Melbourne. Photo/Say Kin Lee
Darryn Onekawa takes to the stage at the 2017 Arnold Classic Australia bodybuilding championships in Melbourne. Photo/Say Kin Lee

People often stare at Onekawa as if unsure if he is a man or a machine. What they do not realise is that beneath the steeled exterior and self-assuredness is a sense of anxiety and vulnerability.

"People look at me and don't think 'oh he suffers from anxiety'," he said. "There are days I don't want to get out of bed. When you go 20 to 25 years with people looking at you because you're different because of the way you look that can build up over time. People don't see that and recognise it. People only see a big, macho guy."

Onekawa's 142cm chest heaved with emotion as he described his daughter as "his saving grace".

"When she's with me - she changes the opinion people have of me because they see me then they see this tiny little blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl and they are like - 'oh jeez he's not that scary monster we all saw'," he said. "He's just a caring loving father and he's just trying to get through one day at a time just like we all are."

Where to get help
■Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
■Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
■Youthline: 0800 376 633
■Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (Mon-Fri 1pm to 10pm. Sat-Sun 3pm-10pm)
■Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
■Samaritans: 0800 726 666
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.