India’s only individual two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is toiling earnestly to secure the elusive Olympic gold medal in the 2020 Tokyo Games. For Sushil, the immediate target is qualifying for his fourth Olympics — preferably through the World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, in September — before shifting focus to the second phase of the task.
In his arduous endeavour, the 36-year-old Sushil has opted to train under Russian coach, the 32-year-old Kamal Malikov, who was hired in April by Tata Motors in consultation with the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI).
What can a two-time Olympic medal winner and a former world champion — who is on the wrong side of his 30s — learn from a coach?
“Sushil needed a young coach so that the lack of a quality partner can be taken care of. He needed someone who can wrestle with him. Also, he can help in doing some physical work and keep an eye. The Russian has a three-in-one role: a coach, a sparring partner and a fitness trainer. So a fit and young man was the requirement.”
First Sushil sent in a request through the WFI to Malikov, who enquired whom he would be training. The Russian — who does not coach anyone randomly and takes up the job only if he thinks someone is really good and falls under his work ethics — went through Sushil’s profile before agreeing to set aside his busy schedule and work with the Indian.
After doing around 50 sessions with Malikov — who has won medals in prominent events such as the World Cup, the Yasar Dogu, Ali Aliyev and Golden Grand Prix events and has worked as a coach in Russia, Poland and Tunisia — Sushil was happy with his progress and was confident of a good show in future.
“The coach has worked on endurance, speed and counter attack. Primarily, he has been working on these three aspects. Besides, he is also focusing on the areas to be improved.
“The training methods are different — for speed there is different training, for power there is another. He looks into aspects like where I need speed, where I need stamina and where I need power. Plus, we work on tactics,” says Sushil.
How does Malikov rate his experience of working with the Indian ace?
“It is easy to work with an experienced wrestler and it is not at all difficult because he knows his goal and goes about it with perseverance. We are working on all areas, like fitness and techniques,” says Malikov.
“There is no place for stress in our team. We are working in a positive direction. It is so good that I can work with him all my life,” adds the Russian.
Patel gives some more perspective to this short-term relationship between an achiever and a foreign coach.
“Sometimes you get bored while training alone. That’s why you need someone who can watch your training, interact with you and provide inputs.
“That’s the same reason why people like Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat are having personal coaches,” says Kripa Shankar.
Sushil has moved on from his bitter off-the-mat battle with Narsingh Yadav and the WFI in his abortive attempt to get the 74kg spot in the Indian side for the Rio Olympics four years ago. In order to avoid criticism, this time he went through the selection trials to pocket the 74kg slot for the World Championships.
Guided by Malikov and Georgian Vladimir Mestvirishivili, the tallest wrestling star from the country hopes to see off the biggest challenges of his career — securing an Olympic quota place and climb atop the podium at the Tokyo Games — and raise his already-elevated stature in the history of Indian sports.