Not long after he made the finals of the U-23 world championships in Pontevedra in Spain a day ago, Aman Sehrawat got a call from an Indian number. It was Lalit Kumar, his coach from the akhara at New Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium. “Aman had reached the finals but because he had to make weight for the next day’s competition, he was trying to lose another kilo. At that time, Aman was still a little tired. So I gave him very simple advice,” Lalit Kumar says. “I told him it’s not enough to reach the final. You have to wrestle for gold. Before you, 6-7 players from India have already won silver. Apni ladan ladiye. (you fight your own fight)”
Aman would do just that. On Saturday night, he would overwhelm Turkey’s Ahmet Duman 12-4 to become the first Indian to win gold at the U-23 World Championships. While, Sehrawat did what far bigger names weren’t able to. With his gold, he went one step further than Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya and Olympic bronze medallist Bajrang Punia – both of whom had won a silver at the U-23 worlds.
Now having eclipsed those wrestlers at this level of competition, Aman will hope he will be able to match or even improve on their feats at the elite level. All this would have been unthinkable six years back. Back then, he was just another 12-year-old with dreams in his eyes who had come to Chhatrasal stadium. Unlike other youngsters who also came to the akhara, believed to produce the best wrestlers in India, Aman was rarely homesick. “That’s because there was nothing for him to go home to,” says Lalit Kumar.
A year after he joined Chhatrasal stadium, Aman’s father Somveer, who had brought him there, died due to a prolonged illness at their home in Bharod village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district. A few years before that, his mother Kamlesh had passed away. “He didn’t have many visitors at Chhatrasal. Many other boys have been sent by their families to train at Chhatrasal. Usually, their parents would bring them milk and other food from their home to help with their diet. There was nothing like that for Aman,” says Lalit.
With the Chhatrasal Stadium akhara becoming his home, all Aman had left was his wrestling. “We knew from an early age that he would be special. He was very hardworking. Chhatrasal stadium has the best wrestlers in the country, and even among them, he stood out. If you told him to do 30 repetitions of an exercise, he would do 60. If a training session was 60 minutes, he would be training by himself for 2 hours,” says Lalit.
The coaches and other trainees at Chhatrasal did what they could to help him. “We knew he was from a poor family and didn’t have money for a good diet. So the coaches contributed money so that he could get milk every day. We knew that he was working hard and had talent. He just needed support,” says Lalit.
Aman would justify their support. In 2017, he won gold at the school nationals, and he won a bronze at the cadet world championships in 2018. A year later, he won gold at the Asian cadet championships and another bronze at the cadet world championships.
One reason for Aman’s steady rise is the level of competition to be found in Chhatrasal stadium, say his coaches. Nearly all of India’s senior world medals and all of the Olympic medals in men’s freestyle have been won by wrestlers – including Ravi’s -- who got their start at the academy. “It serves as a lot of inspiration for the other wrestlers when they see wrestlers from their academy winning medals at the world level. When a senior player wins a medal, we use them as examples. The younger wrestlers see that if they get medals, they can change their lives. They see that if they work hard, they can achieve nearly anything,” says Lalit.
One wrestler all the youngsters admired was Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya. “He also comes from a simple family. But now he is an Olympic medallist. He has a high position in the Delhi govt. All the youngsters see that. They know that if they perform, they too can change their position in society,” says Lalit.
As per his coaches, Aman has a lot in common with Ravi, who also wrestles in the 57kg weight category. “They have a very similar technique. They both are very attacking players, who will break the opponent down with their pressure. They both have a left-footed stance too,” says Lalit. The difference is mostly in their level of experience at the world level. “Ravi is much older (at 24, he is six years Aman’s senior). He has much more strength than Aman has right now. Right now, Ravi usually weighs about 64kg out of competition while Aman is only around 61kg,” says Lalit.
That strength difference has proved the critical factor in the one instance the two have wrestled – in the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games earlier this year, where Ravi ended up winning by technical superiority.
But it’s unlikely that that encounter will be the last between the two. It’s also unlikely that the same scoreline will repeat in the future either. “Aman’s bests quality is his speed and his foot movement. He moves well, and he attacks constantly. He is almost always on the attack. Right now, that can be a problem because he has a habit of conceding points at the start. But as he matures, he will know how to control that,” says Lalit.
At the final of the U-23 World Championships, Aman indeed curbed his penchant for giving away loose points even while maintaining his attacking instincts. In the final, he was careful in avoiding a takedown in the opening half. Although he went into the second period 0-2 down, his constant snap down of Duman, eventually exhausted the Turk. By the end of the match, he was blasting double-leg takedowns at will.
With his first world-level gold medal in his bag, coaches are optimistic about Aman’s path going forward. “Every medal is important, but this one will give him a lot of confidence going into the next few years. Right now, he is still very young, and there is a lot of competition in the 57kg category in India. Aman respects everyone. He touches the senior wrestlers’ feet at Chhatrasal. But on the mat, he will fight for his place. Now Aman has the chance to make his name,” he says.