The Ravi Kumar Dahiya story - where wrestling precedes all else

Ravi Dahiya’s laser focus helped him overcome several obstacles, including idol Sushil Kumar's arrest, Covid-19 interruptions and the lack of proper sparring due to visa issues while travelling from Poland to Russia, in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics.

Faith in his abilities: “I realise the silver is also a big achievement. My target was the gold medal. Initially, I was sad. My family is very happy and proud of my achievement,” concedes Ravi Dahiya.   -  REUTERS

The boy once dismissed as a puny keeda (insect) not cut out for wrestling is now Tokyo Olympics silver medallist Ravi Kumar Dahiya. Ridicule and stinging words do not penetrate Ravi's armour because he has no time to waste on distractions.

The 23-year-old wrestler could not initially hide his disappointment after the silver medal but understands the happiness it has brought to the country and his family. He concedes, "I realise the silver is also a big achievement. My target was the gold medal. Initially, I was sad. My family is very happy and proud of my achievement."

The good news for India: Ravi is far from being satisfied. He wants gold and it is non-negotiable.

Ravi, the first Indian wrestler after Sushil Kumar to claim a silver medal in the Olympics, is driven by his single-minded devotion to wrestling. Similarly, his loyalty towards the Delhi-based Chhatrasal Stadium is also unshakeable.

Virender Kumar, who once worked as a coach at the stadium, lets slip that some people used to make fun of the wiry Ravi by calling him keeda when he first arrived as a boy.

Nothing, however, could deter the youngster or his father Rakesh, a small-time farmer. Once Ravi began training at Chhatrasal, Rakesh would often cycle from their village, Nahri in Haryana's Sonipat district, to the stadium — covering more than 25km one way — carrying milk, curd and butter for his son.

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Now, Ravi looks back at his yesteryear detractors and their jibes with a smile. “People talk a lot. I don’t pay attention to such words. My family always wanted me to do well in wrestling,” says Ravi.

“After I came to Chhatrasal, Sushil Kumar won the Olympic medal [bronze in Beijing 2008]. It was heartening to see him getting honoured for his achievement. It inspired me a lot. I started dreaming of winning an Olympic medal. If I am here today, then it is because of Satpal ji [coach 'Mahabali' Satpal Singh, who is also Sushil's guru and father-in-law] and the centre. If the centre were not there, I would not be here,” says Ravi.

The stadium is his haven. He stayed here instead of heading home even when the Covid-19 pandemic forced a nationwide lockdown last year. Ravi, who does not associate himself with any particular coach, is a Chhatrasalite to the core. “Satpal ji used to decide who will work with whom. Everybody worked under him. So, he is the main guru at Chhatrasal Stadium.”

If Sushil’s bronze in Beijing 2008 spurred Ravi to dream big, Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt's silver and bronze medals in London 2012 fuelled it further. “Sushil and Yogeshwar have inspired younger wrestlers like me and paved the road for us. They showed us that Indian wrestlers could win medals on the biggest stage. I have always looked up to them,” says Ravi.

Coach Ramphal Mann, who worked at Chhatrasal, says Ravi admires Yogeshwar and follows his style of wrestling. In fact, Ravi stays in the same austere room where Yogeshwar, the former mentor of Tokyo Olympics bronze medallist Bajrang Punia, used to live. The place is a pilgrimage for wrestling lovers. “Yogeshwar is a very big wrestler. I am very proud and happy to be staying in the room where he used to stay. It is such an honour,” says Ravi.

Wrestling is Ravi's all-consuming passion, everything else takes a back seat. He has no time for festivals, family functions, gifts, or letting his hair down. “I don’t get time to think about other things in life. There is so much to learn and work on my game. The sport has become so competitive that I have to take care of each and every aspect of it. I will give my 100 per cent as long as I pursue this sport, otherwise I will quit,” he says.

Ravi's laser focus helped him overcome several obstacles, including Covid-19 interruptions, and the lack of proper sparring due to visa issues while travelling from Poland to Russia, in the run-up to the Olympics.

His mentor Sushil getting arrested for his alleged involvement in a murder at Chhatrasal Stadium was another disturbing moment. “I was not in India when it happened. I was in Bulgaria for training. I felt very sad about the whole incident. But I focused on my wrestling. God willing, everything will be all right.”

India's performance: A bittersweet experience

Ravi had faith in his abilities to win the gold medal in Tokyo in his 57kg freestyle division but lost to a familiar and formidable rival in the final. “I was fully prepared and gave my 100 per cent. My rival (Russian Zaur Uguev), who is a two-time World champion, was more experienced and prepared than me. So, he managed to beat me and became the Olympic champion.”

Ravi, a Worlds bronze medallist and a two-time Asian champion, feels his Olympics silver is going to transform his village, which is grappling with several problems including electricity and water woes. “I am sure my performance will make my village a better one. I hope a lot of things will improve. The Chief Minister (of Haryana) has announced my area will have an indoor stadium.”

Ravi is allowing himself a small break before hitting reset to compete in big events such as the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games next year, and Paris Olympics in 2024. “The medal in Tokyo is a result of two years of hard work. I have not thought about what I am going to do now. I will take a few days break before returning to training at Chhatrasal Stadium. There may be minor changes to my training, but not much. I will consult guruji and plan.”

Are we going to see Ravi, who works hard to cut weight, fight in a slightly heavier category?

“The United World Wrestling is thinking about making some changes in the weight categories. I have to wait and see. If required, I will do the switch later,” says Ravi.