|Golden comeback: Yogeshwar Dutt (right) is aiming for an Olympic medal / Photo: Sanjay Ahlawat|
By Neeru Bhatia
It is a windy winter morning in Sonepat, Haryana. On the sprawling grounds of the Sports Authority of India’s northern regional centre a group of hefty blokes in track suits and beanies are warming up under the watchful eyes of their coaches. Their broad shoulders and heavy build are a giveaway. The senior national wrestling camp is underway here.
Unlike a cricket or even a hockey camp, this camp is shorn of media attention. Missing are the long rows of TV cameras, photographers lugging telephoto lenses and groups of important-looking reporters speaking urgently into their mobile phones, tracking every second of the action.
But the lack of glamour does not lessen the achievements of these wrestlers. Among the 17 wrestlers here are an Olympic medallist, a World Championship bronze winner and an Asian champion. In the upcoming sports season, the 17 are expected to bring home a basketful of medals. The main meets awaiting them are Asian Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. Chief coach Jagminder Singh, who came fourth in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, is confident about his wards. “Indians always had good technique, it is only in speed that we used to get beaten. We are focusing on improving in this area,” he said.
Deputy coach Vladimir Mestvirishvili, a Georgian, too, is all praise for his Indian wards. He, however, rues the lack of a professional sports system in the country.
“We expect quite a lot of medals in the Commonwealth Games,” said Jagminder. “Other than the celebrated trio—Sushil Kumar, Ramesh Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt—we have a few others with potential in the 55kg category—Vimal Kumar, Anil Kumar and Balraj Singh. There is Joginder Kumar and Rajiv Tomar in the 120kg category.” Jagminder is preparing the team for the Asian Championships. As part of the preparations, two teams have gone to the US and Cuba.
In the recent Commonwealth Wrestling Championships held in Jalandhar, Indian wrestlers did well. With Beijing Olympics bronze medallist Sushil Kumar leading the way, the freestyle wrestlers bagged all seven golds in their category.
One of the reasons for the good showing by Indian wrestlers in recent years is the change in the format of camps. Earlier, short camps were held for selected wrestlers just ahead of a major competition, but now camps are almost yearlong. Thanks to the upcoming Commonwealth Games, SAI has bought state-of-the-art training equipment, including gym equipment from Italy for Rs 4 crore.
Freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestlers stay together in the SAI hostel, and their progress is closely monitored. Almost all hail from nearby areas in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, and so no one complains about the lengthy camp. A bout of homesickness is rectified by a quick trip to the village or a visit from friends and family during off time.
There are three who stand out in the camp—Sushil, 2009 World Wrestling Championship bronze medallist Ramesh and Dutt, the 2008 Asian Championship gold medallist and 2006 Asiad bronze medallist. Rope climbing is a tested exercise to improve a wrestler’s grip. Sushil climbs the rope around 200 times in an hour, much to the awe of the others. “That is why he is one of the best!” quipped one wrestler.
Sushil’s life revolves around his akhada at the derelict Chhatrasal Stadium in north Delhi, where he honed his technique. In July 2009, he went from the akhada to the Rashtrapati Bhavan to receive the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna. He was absent from the pre-awards lunch and shunned the five-star hotel, where all other athletes were put up, to be with other wrestlers at the cramped quarters in the stadium.
Sushil won the gold at the recently concluded Commonwealth championships, a brilliant comeback after his disappointing performance at the World Championships last year. “After the Olympic bronze, I aim to win the gold. Besides, all four main competitions this year are big. I have to perform well there,” said Sushil. He is aware that the Beijing win has raised the profile of, and expectations about, wrestling. “In between there was a time when kids had stopped taking to wrestling,” he said. “I see them joining akhadas again.”
Dutt, 27, is rated as one of the top six wrestlers in the 60kg category worldwide. When THE WEEK watched him practise, Dutt was dressed in a black T-shirt, which had a picture of two wrestlers in action, black tights and black, lightweight training shoes. Nimble on his feet, he sparred with his partner, and the rippling muscles of his legs highlighted his excellent physical conditioning.
It is hard to believe that this is the same Dutt who heartbreakingly missed out on an Olympic medal in 2008 and then suffered a career-threatening knee injury during the national trials in 2009. His anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments, the most important ligaments in the knee, were torn. “When I tried to walk, my leg would just collapse,” recalled Dutt. “I was away from wrestling for six months. That was very tough.” Dutt had started wresting when he was nine; he began at the akhada in his village, Bhainswal Kalan, in Sonepat district. Jagminder calls Dutt hardworking and focused.
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