Ravi Dahiya: Man on the mat

Olympics silver medal-winning wrestler Ravi Dahiya opens the doors to his world for Sportstar for a day.

When in Ravi Kumar Dahiya’s world, be prepared to go easy with the volley of questions. The wrestler, who is electrifyingly fast on the mat, sets a slow pace off it when he speaks. There are no sweeping quotes for effect, or glib phrases. Most answers are preceded by shrugs that make the Tokyo Olympics 57kg category silver medal winner’s muscled traps pop.

Ravi opens the doors to his world for Sportstar on a day that sees two remarkable happenings in his life. After a draining evening practice session, he lets on that earlier in the day he signed up for the job of an assistant director with the education and sports department of the Delhi government. Ravi admits he is happy, but the face remains impassive as he offers a monkish perspective. “Theek hai (it’s okay),” he says, sitting in his room at the Chhatrasal Stadium in north Delhi. “This is very important, but right now, I am consumed by wrestling.” If you are among outsiders, much like us, who dearly want him to be more expressive, this is as good as it gets.

Later that evening, news comes in that he is among those recommended for the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award — India’s highest sporting honour.

Ravi Dahiya, sitting next to Arun, a fellow-resident of Nahri village in Haryana’s Sonipat district and an accomplished wrestler himself.   -  The Hindu


“He is 40 per cent better now at talking to journalists and people,” says his mentor, friend and senior Arun Kumar, and breaks into a smile. If this is 40 per cent better, what was he like earlier? A smile finally appears on Ravi’s face, sitting next to Arun, a fellow-resident of Nahri village in Haryana’s Sonipat district and an accomplished wrestler himself. The smile on Ravi’s taut face, the skin stretched thin over years of cutting weight to fit into competitive categories, does not linger. “He is still shy,” says Arun.

Point taken; an ongoing video recording of the interaction is stopped. Ravi, in shorts, relaxes and the air of formality in the room evaporates a little. His room is austere and sporting clothes dominate the wall hangers, and some lie on a corner of a bed. It’s not messy, but will not pass a mother’s neatness test. More sports attire hangs in his small bathroom, which has a washing machine, one that shows signs that it works as hard as the room’s occupant. The room is a homage to mat couture.

A foldover suit carrier on the hanger stands out. “I have a few formal clothes,” says Ravi. Arun chimes in, “We made him buy those after the Olympics because he had to attend formal events.”

What else has he bought, for himself or family members? “Nothing (followed by a shrug, which is now expected),” says Ravi. “That’s not important at the moment.”

Accolades are pouring in for Ravi and many want a piece of him. The spotlight is unavoidable, but it gnaws at him that some of these activities eat into his time.

He feels the pinch of going outside his Chhatrasal haven. “Bhaisaab, jitni baatein karni hai, yahin kar lo, par mujhe kahin bahar mat bulao (talk to me as much as you want here in Chhatrasal, but don’t invite me outside).”

Days before this interaction, he tried his hand at making pizza (after saying in an interview that he liked pizza) at a five-star hotel. He also shot a video for a fashion show. “I wake up really early to fit in practice if I have to devote time elsewhere in the morning,” he says. “I have to stop at some point and return to my world.”

It’s a fine balancing act that Ravi’s minders have to perform. They want him to have greater visibility and reap the benefits, but are aware it cannot be at the cost of his wrestling. Ravi does not seem to have an inclination for the trappings of success; the Olympics medal hasn’t changed that. An episode before he left India to train in the final stretch for the Tokyo Olympics illustrates this the best. It was a rainy evening and Ravi returned to his room with an iPhone. It was a gift. Fellow wrestlers in his room appeared more excited about the phone than him. He barely looked at it.

“This is how he was when he came to Chattrasal as a balak (boy). He has not changed,” says Arun. “Early on, he did not stand apart as results did not go his way despite working hard. As we searched for answers, we found that he had a severe iron deficiency. The issue was addressed and he began improving.”

Ravi seems immune to outside noise and chatter, his world filled with fellow wrestling insiders. With them, he is a different beast. He breaks into laughter with ease with them during accessory exercises after practice on the mat. Merely watching the Olympian go through his training session is guaranteed to make jaws drop. His body is lithe and his movements catlike. He will turn 24 soon. His strength is growing, as he hones his craft.

A gruelling session on the mat is followed by nearly 20 minutes of rope climbing. Ravi awaits his turn after each climb, going to the back of the queue of four. Before his turn, he holds the rope steady for the person ahead. When he is done with his climb, it’s back in queue. It’s relentless and it’s evident he is the alpha, but an unassuming one. During the climbing session, a man brings his child to Ravi for a picture. He obliges without hesitation.

As the rope climbs continue, a few wrestlers show signs of fatigue and their movements become laboured, but Ravi does not waver. He takes off his sweaty T-shirt and keeps going, his last climb as quick and smooth as the first.

Then it’s off to the gym for the finishing touches, which include chest presses and back extensions. A stretching session, a rubdown and cool down follow. “Let’s talk here,” he says in the gym, before deciding his room will be better.

It’s baffling that Ravi barely has water during this intense practice session even as he sweats profusely. Arun explains, “Our system of training is tap (the practice of self-restraint and purity that Hindu ascetics perform) and tyaag (sacrifice). Earlier, we would not take a sip of water till our practice sessions ended. These days, younger wrestlers take a sip or two.” But, doesn’t dehydration sap energy and lower performance levels? “Our tap makes us extremely resilient,” Arun replies. Ravi joins in and says, “I do not feel the need to drink water. If I do, I will have it.” His take is simple, much like his rationale that made him choose to eat non-vegetarian food in Russia before the Olympics.

Arun, who was Ravi’s training mate in Russia in the run-up to the Olympics, says, “Wrestlers at Chhatrasal are vegetarians, as was Ravi before he decided he must do what it takes to win in the Olympics. Finding vegetarian food in Russia while in hard training was a tough ask. There is nothing more to it.”

Do elite wrestlers across the world go through such severe processes of hard training and denial? Ravi says, “What works for everyone could be different.” He has implicit faith in his process.

Merely watching Ravi Dahiya go through his training session is guaranteed to make jaws drop. His body is lithe and his movements catlike. He will turn 24 soon. His strength is growing, as he hones his craft.   -  The Hindu


Arun, who is in the Indian Air Force, says, “Wrestlers abroad appear more relaxed in approach, but there is no denying their hard work. They appear to be stronger, but we can work on that part. We have endurance. The nuance of wrestling is once you have had a bout or two with a wrestler, you figure him out. The opponent also gets insights into what you do. This is where a wrestler needs to become smarter.”

As the question veers to the Tokyo Olympics, the final and its aftermath, Ravi speaks about his disappointment after the loss to Russian Zavur Uguev. “I had my heart set on winning the gold medal, but it was not to be. Shayad mujh mein kuch kami reh gayi (maybe I lacked something). I will work to plug the shortcomings.”

Uguev, a two-time world champion, was a formidable opponent, but Ravi was confident. Having to settle for silver left him crestfallen, a state of mind which carried on to images and videos immediately after the bout and to the podium later. India celebrated Ravi’s feat, but the wrestler initially struggled to allow himself to be happy with his achievement. With time, though, he appreciates the joy his medal has brought to Indians, but Olympics remains unfinished business.

Senior sports physiotherapist Munesh Kumar, who works closely with Ravi, says, “He was unwilling to settle for anything less than gold. We have had Olympics medallists in wrestling, but not a gold medal. Ravi was desperate to do it and we, too, felt he would be the one to do it. That is why he did not appear elated.”

Munesh, who worked with decorated wrestler Sushil Kumar earlier, glances at Ravi and adds, “We will move ahead.” Yes, Ravi is moving ahead. A lot of expectations ride on him for Paris Olympics 2024, but none loftier than those he has of himself. However, it’s one step at a time. “Before the Paris Olympics, we have important events such as the Commonwealth Games, the Asian Games and other tournaments. I will focus on those first,” says Ravi.

Accolades are pouring in for Ravi Dahiya and many want a piece of him. The spotlight is unavoidable, but it gnaws at him that some of these activities eat into his time.   -  The Hindu


In a welcome turn of events several days after the interaction with Ravi, his father, Rakesh Dahiya, drops in at Chhatrasal. It’s a trip he has made hundreds of times over the years after letting his pre-teen son leave home in 2007 to wrestle. Ravi rarely goes home, and when he does, he’s back within a few hours.

Stories abound of how Dahiya Sr, a small-time farmer, would often cycle from their village to the stadium — covering more than 25km one way — carrying milk, curd and butter for his son. Munesh facilitates a phone conversation with Dahiya Sr, who seems more at ease talking than his son, though the view remains equally straight and uncluttered. “Uske medal me sabhi ka yogdaan hai. Poore desh ka, gaon ka, aap sab ka (Everybody has contributed to his medal. The whole country, our village, you all)," says Dahiya Sr.

He talks about his kheti ka kaam (farming) and the merits of hard work. Asked about his son’s penchant to let others do the talking for him, he replies, “Apni mehnat karein. Simple rehna chahiye (work hard and stay simple).”

The Dahiya family has collectively gone through years of hard work and today Ravi sits among the elite in his sport, with a world of admirers, but it wasn’t always the case. When he first came to Chhatrasal Stadium, some ridiculed him for his frail physique, calling him a keeda (insect).

Asked about this by a journalist colleague once, he had smiled. His response: “People talk a lot. I don’t pay attention to such words.” He did not choose words to answer them, he showed them. Ravi is back at work, ready to put on a show where it counts — on the mat.