An insatiable hunger for perfection

Sushil Kumar takes wrestling very seriously. He has the right attitude, discipline and focus.


No pre-departure hype. No media attention. No tall claims. Sushil Kumar went to Beijing unnoticed. Only his close coaches and fellow wrestlers from Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium expected him to return with a medal. He had prepared very hard since qualifying for the Olympics earlier this year. After all, right from his days as a cadet, Sushil has been winning medals at all levels.

When the big day came in Beijing, Sushil lost the first round and the news channels were quick to flash the results. Few were aware that the wrestler was still in the hunt for a possible medal under the repechage rule that gives a loser a second chance if his conqueror reaches the final.

> Sushil Kumar: Player Profile

In the repechage round, Sushil proved superior to three other wrestlers and won one of the two bronze medals at stake. Unlike several better-known Indian sportspersons in Beijing, Sushil Kumar first completed the job in hand and then spoke about it. The Indian media, both in Beijing and at home, was caught napping. Sushil was described as a ‘surprise’ medallist. But the fact was he had exposed an ignorant media that had obviously not done its homework.

Sushil is among the top five wrestlers in the world in the 66kg class. He has won every single medal at stake from world cadet level since 1999, five years after he took up wrestling seriously under coach Yashbir Dabas. He claimed the gold medal in the Asian junior (under-20) championship in 2001, was fourth in the World Championship two years later but exited in the first round in the Athens Olympics. He won the Commonwealth Championship in South Africa in 2005 and a bronze medal in the Asian Games in Doha in 2006. He went on to add the gold from the Commonwealth Championship in 2007 and a bronze from the Asian Championship. He finished seventh in the World Championship to qualify for the Olympics.

Considering his consistent showing in the competitions leading to the Games, Sushil and Yogeshwar Dutt, a fellow trainee at the Chhatrasal Stadium, raised hopes of a medal.

Yashbir, who has kept a close eye on Sushil ever since he came to the Chhatrasal Stadium in 1994, said: “In all these years, Sushil has remained a very quiet boy, hates to go out even to the nearby market, forget about going for movies.

“He takes wrestling very seriously and talks of winning the Olympic gold.

“He has the right attitude, discipline and focus while training. His parents have given him the right values and he respects the words of his coaches. It is this combination of factors that has helped him bounce back from a bad start to win a medal.”

Sushil hails from Najafgarh, a locality made famous by the dashing cricketer Virender Sehwag. He got interested in wrestling at a very young age and started taking part in the weekly ‘dangal’ (wrestling bouts for all age-groups and weight categories with cash awards for the finalists). In 1994, Satpal spotted this youngster and offered him residential accommodation at the Chhatrasal Stadium to pursue his passion.

Insufficient financial resources did make things a bit difficult for Sushil’s father Diwan Singh, a driver with Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Limited (MTNL). But Diwan Singh, himself an ardent admirer of wrestling, made sure his son got all the support. The father would carry two to four litres of milk every morning for Sushil. This was in addition to the supply of dry fruits and home-made ghee.

“Around Rs. 10,000 to 12,000 is spent on a wrestler’s diet and other expenses every month here,” says Virender Singh, another coach at the Chhatrasal Stadium. “It is not easy for the families of these wrestlers (around 150 in number) to support them.

They have to not only look after their sons but the entire family. You can well imagine the sustained sacrifices made by these families. Sushil’s family is one among them.”

Like most village boys who take up wrestling to win the weekly ‘dangal’, Sushil, too, had won a few bouts to take care of expenses — a monthly packet of around Rs. 11,000. This way, he started taking care of himself and ensured that his parents and brother did not have to make more sacrifices.

Former Chief National coach and this year’s Dronacharya Award winner Jagminder Singh said: “Sushil is among the rare breed of young wrestlers who has managed to stay away from distractions like watching television or keeping a mobile phone. I have seen him from close quarters during all the National camps from 2003 to 2007 and found that his passion for wrestling is commendable. He would train, rest and look forward to returning to the mat the same day. His hunger for perfection is insatiable.

“He has won titles at various levels but winning an Olympic medal is of course the biggest of them all. So far, nothing distracted him from his goal. I hope, like in the past, he remains focussed and realises his dream of winning the Olympic gold four years from now in London.”


Bustling wrestling centres

Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal has put the focus back on wrestling. A sport that gave Independent India its first individual medal in 1952, wrestling was pushed out of the spotlight. Indian wrestlers continued to win medals at the world cadet, Asian and Commonwealth championships but when it came to the Olympics, they failed to achieve success.

Sushil’s success has boosted the morale of hundreds of wrestling trainees from the rural areas in and around the Capital. Around 150 boys train at the Birla Akhara, founded by late Guru Hanuman, a Dronacharya Award winner. He has trained several Olympians.

Satpal, India’s lone gold medallist in wrestling in the 1982 Asian Games and a protégé of Guru Hanuman, runs a coaching centre at Chhatrasal Stadium which also attracts over 150 boys.

The Chandgi Ram Akhara, run by Arjuna Award winner Chandgi Ram, has fewer members but the novelty here is that around 20 girls are among the trainees. Noted wrestlers Subhash and Sanjay also have their own ‘Akharas’ on the outskirts of Delhi.

The trainees in the age group of 12 to 30 throng these wrestling centres. The Chhatrasal Stadium, which offers free lodging facilities — eight rooms for about 50 wrestlers — is considered to be among the better run centres. With Satpal, who is also the head of the Directorate of Sports, taking keen interest in grooming talent, wrestling has benefited the most.

The weekly ‘dangal’ held in old Delhi also plays a big role in keeping the wrestling aficionados actively engaged in the proceedings. Guru Brahamachari Ravinandan, 87, patron of the Indian Style Wrestling Federation, said: “Indian style wrestling (fought on loose mud) provides the foundation for all our wrestlers. But it is important to adapt to the changes in competitive wrestling taking place around the world. We should not stick to our traditional ways by ignoring the latest techniques and styles. I’ll be very happy if Sushil’s success brings in patronage of big companies which can also help our coaches gain knowledge of the latest developments in the wrestling world.”

At the wrestling centres the day begins at 3.45 a.m. with a warm-up session lasting an hour before the trainees hit the mat. Similarly, the evening session also begins with a light warm-up before practice bouts under the watchful eyes of the coaches. But the exercise routine changes every day to break the monotony. “We change the routine to ensure that the wrestlers do not develop the same set of muscles. Flexibility is the key in wrestling and that is why, weight-training is only for two days a week,” said coach Virender Kumar of Chhatrasal Stadium which has produced several World and Asian Cadet, junior and National champions.

Though Sushil is its best-known trainee at present, Yogeshwar Dutt who lost narrowly in Beijing, Anil Mann, Narender, Krishan Kumar, Praveen Kumar, Arun Kumar and Sumit Kumar are among the other medal winners in international competitions.

Coaches from across these centres agree that in the past decade wrestling received a bad name with several anti-social elements using ‘Pehalwan’ (wrestler) as part of their name.

As Virender put it, “There was a time when Tejpur village (in outer Delhi) used to send at least one wrestler from every home to these centres. The number dwindled drastically with an increase in unsavoury incidents involving ‘Pehalwan.’ Now with Sushil bringing back some of the lost glory, the number of young trainees will hopefully go up. Quantity is sure to bring in better quality.”

(This article was originally published in the Sportstar issue dated August 30, 2008)

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