Newly crowned world champion wrestler Sushil Kumar talks about his journey from Haryana’s mud pits and claustrophobic hostel rooms to the Olympic medal and international stardom
Sushil Kumar is sitting bare-chested on his bed as Arvinder Pal Singh, the Indian wrestling team’s physiotherapist, carefully tapes his injured calf muscle. “It’s just a minor tweak,” Kumar says, “(need to) keep the muscle warm.” Kumar’s younger brother Amardeep enters the room holding a red T-shirt with a printed picture of Kumar pinning down an opponent in a tangle of limbs. It’s an iconic photograph, at least in wrestling circles, because it shows Kumar winning the bronze medal fight at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “That’s a good one brother,” Kumar says, before turning his attention to us. “What will you drink? Lassi? Have you eaten? Do you want breakfast?”
King of the mat: Kumar says his achievements are finally giving wrestling the impetus it needs. ‘The next generation will benefit hugely from the improved infrastructure,’ he says. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
We are at the Sports Authority of India’s residential training centre for elite wrestlers in Sonepat on the outskirts of Delhi, a place Kumar calls home, and he is adamant that we eat and drink everything that is available at the canteen. His room, which he shares with three other wrestlers and his younger brother, is tiny, with barely enough room to stand next to the beds.
A small TV is perched on top of a steel cupboard, and jars of protein powder take up all the space on top of the solitary table. It’s not the kind of room you expect India’s first Olympic medallist in wrestling since 1952 to stay in.
“You should have seen how we stayed before I won the medal.” Kumar says in Hindi. “It was a hot, claustrophobic place with 20 people to a room. We hardly had enough space to lie down and sleep.”
The 27-year-old wrestler from a small village called Baprola in Haryana is the toast of the international wrestling community after becoming the first Indian to win a gold medal at the World Wrestling Championship in Moscow on 12 September. A win, Kumar himself says, that is bigger than his Olympic medal. “Wrestlers, officials and journalists from around the world came up to me after the final,” Kumar says. “They knew it was historic. I had beaten world champions, Asian champions and Olympic champions. There was a lot of celebration.”
A look at Kumar’s route to the final shows the extent of his domination—a 6-0 routing of Greece’s Akritidis Anastasios in the second round, a 4-1 triumph over Germany’s Martin Sebastian in the pre-quarters, a 9-1 thrashing of Mongolia’s Buyanjav Batzorig in the quarter-finals. A few months before the World Championship, Kumar had won gold at the 2010 Asian Wrestling Championship in similar fashion. From a bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympics, Kumar is now the undisputed champion of his category.
But before Kumar’s Olympic medal, wrestling was a sport that hardly crossed the boundaries of the village akhara, the traditional mud pits where heavily oiled wrestlers grapple across rural India. In the two years since Beijing, wrestlers have their own dedicated training centre in Sonepat complete with a state-of-the-art gym, and imported Olympic-standard mats have become ubiquitous at akharas across the country.
“My father was a wrestler who did it the traditional way. And even I began my wrestling in mud pits,” says Kumar. “But these changes were highly needed. Now that all these improvements have begun, our juniors will truly benefit from it. Now we will churn out international-level wrestlers.”
Kumar’s wrestling career began when he was just 12 and had gone to see his father Diwan Singh fight in a wrestling bout during a village festival. Kumar was so excited that he repeatedly tried to trip his father after the bout. “I was a pest,” he recalls, “but from the next day my father started training me.” By the time Kumar was 14, it was evident that he had a gift for the sport, and his father took him to the akhara run by legendary Indian wrestler Satpal Singh at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi.“That was my introduction to the lifestyle of a wrestler, where you sacrifice everything for the sport, and where your guru and the akhara are the only truths of your existence,” says Kumar. “Do you know, I’ve never even watched a movie in a theatre?”
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