The success of Amit, Bajrang and Sandeep at the World Championship has given a boost to the sport.
When India’s best wrestlers — Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt — confirmed their absence from the World Championships in Budapest, it left the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) with a slew of first-timers and whispers of doubts surrounding them. But what ensued at the Worlds was a chain of events that triggered excitement and joy around the country.
Amit Kumar Dahiya (silver medal, 55kg), Bajrang Punia (bronze, 60 kg) and Sandeep Tulsi Yadav (bronze, Greco-Roman, 66kg) not only ensured India their best finish in the mega bash but also gave proof of the robust state of the sport in the country.
There is no doubt that from rolling on the village mud pits for quick money, Indian wrestlers have treaded a significant distance to rediscover themselves in the finesse of the mat. The transition was slow but once the results started to manifest, the lure of traditional dangals (mudpit wrestling) began to leave a fading trail.
“Yes, dangals are a way to earn money and you do feel good for some time. But we have understood that our future lies in training on mats. Hum dangal ke pehelwan nahi hain (we are no more wrestlers who belong to dangals),” said Bajrang.
All these youngsters would be quick to credit Sushil for opening the window of opportunities for them. The impact of his 2008 Olympic bronze medal in Beijing turned out to be so big that it made scores of fledgling grapplers starry-eyed about their future and stoked in them the hunger of winning. His silver medal at last year’s London Olympic Games coupled with Yogeshwar’s bronze reaffirmed their belief. Wrestling appeared as an escape from a life of drudgery as most came from humble backgrounds.
Amit was all of 10 when he left his village, Nahri, near Sonepat in Haryana, to stay in Delhi’s Chhattarsal Stadium. His father sells milk for a living but allowed his son to nurture his talent in the sophistication of a city academy. Stories of Bajrang and Sandeep are not very different either. It binds them in their quest for glory.
What had benefited these youngsters is the companionship of experienced Sushil and Yogeshwar. While Amit had been training with Sushil, Bajrang had been a long-time room-mate of Yogeshwar. Bajrang would tell how Yogeshwar spent hours correcting his technique and even helped him financially. In fact, the two seniors reached Budapest three days before the start of World Championships to spur on the grapplers.
“Training with the seniors prepared these youngsters for the international meets at a very young age. I knew their presence would give the youngsters confidence. It is wonderful to see even our second line of wrestlers producing medals,” said national coach Vinod Kumar.
The success, though, has not come overnight. It is a result of more than a decade of hard work and systematic approach. The government has spent generously on the training trips abroad and employed foreign coaches. Exposure to the training methods of the overseas wrestlers proved an eye opener for the home-grown grapplers. Today the Indian contingent is a regular at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, a state-of-the-art international facility where wrestlers from all over the world assemble for training-cum-competition camps.
The visits to such camps dissipated the long-rooted inhibition and fear among the Indians. The coaches invested their experience from these trips in the academy at home and in nurturing the junior wrestlers. Most significantly, these overseas trips made the Indians aware of the fundamental flaws in their training methods.
“We realised that we were spending our maximum time in working on our bodies rather than practicing the bouts. If there would be a four-hour training session, we would spend only 15-20 minutes for bouts. But when we went abroad we found the top wrestlers do the opposite. They spent maximum time on tactical training. That was in 2006. We employed these new methods that not only built our technical skills but also endurance,” said Yashvir Singh, former national coach and 2010 FILA Coach of the Year. “We also corrected our diet. We were over-reliant on milk and ghee.
No doubt they add to the strength but they don’t help in recovery. We cut that quantity and began taking food supplements and multi-vitamins. That enhanced the quality of our training sessions. Now we have a physiotherapist and a masseur on a regular basis.”
Kumar added: “Technology has also helped. Today we record their fights and point out their mistakes.”
Last year India broke new ground in women’s wrestling as well, by winning two bronze medals at the Worlds. This year the biggest gain has been the historic bronze in Greco-Roman. At 25, Sandeep became the first Indian to win a medal in Greco-Roman wrestling in the World Championships. His victory has given hope to the practitioners of the classical style, which lagged behind because of the popularity of freestyle wrestling.
“Freestyle gets the medals for the country, so the focus of the government and federation is on them. The lack of camps has hurt our performance. It should now change after Sandeep’s medal,” said Greco-Roman chief coach Hargobind Sandhu.
The performance at the Worlds has raised the hopes of increasing the medal tally in forthcoming Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. Their victories gain significance in the backdrop of the danger of wrestling being dropped from the Olympic fold. Its reinstatement only sparked a new vigour among the grapplers.
“I always said that if wrestling is dropped from the Olympics, India will be the biggest loser. The victories of juniors have shown the growth of our wrestlers. They are bubbling with positive energy. Their success lies in the change of their mindset. Today they don’t fear anyone. They participate only to win gold medals,” said Sushil.