It might not seem like much, but the walls of an underground hall in New Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium are the closest thing Indian wrestling might have to a pantheon of greats. What used to be an underground parking hall now serves as a training venue for the trainees here. Alongside the mats, serving as motivation for those training here, are framed photographs of some of the great wrestlers who have trained at this North Delhi wrestling institution. And there are many great freestyle wrestlers, most of them world medallists, but one of its Olympic men’s wrestling medallists has learned his craft here.
“It’s not easy to get your picture put up on the wall here. You have to be an Olympic medallist, a world medallist, or at least an Arjuna Award winner to have your picture put up here,” says Parveen Singh, who coaches at Chhatrasal Stadium. Indeed, these are the elite athletes — two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar, Olympic bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt, four-time world medallist Bajrang Punia, Amit Dahiya, the youngest Indian to medal at the world championships, and most recently Tokyo silver medallist Ravi Dahiya—whose visages loom over the trainees.
When you see the intensity of the training sessions, it goes some way to explain Chhatrasal Stadium’s success. At a regular evening training session, coach Parveen counts out burpees, or utthak baithaks, in an unrelenting cadence. When he finishes counting to 50, Parveen gives the wrestlers 30 seconds of rest before starting again. Only after 10 sets for a total of 500 burpees do the wrestlers begin their mat training.
An utthak baithak (standing up and going down) is deceptively simple. Wrestlers start from a standing position, then drop and complete a push up before jumping back into a standing position. After a few, though, it gets exhausting as lactic acid builds up in muscles because of the full-body nature of the movement. Several of the wrestlers just about complete their sets before eagerly waiting for the half-minute break before the next one.
There is one exception, though: Aman Sehrawat, who wrestles in the 57kg category.
The 19-year-old ignores his coaches’ count and sets his own fast pace as he powers through his burpees. By the time each set ends, he has done upwards of 65. While those around him are breathing heavily, Aman is going even faster. He cranks out 115 in four-and-a-half minutes. Almost everyone else is still at 50.
Aman seems embarrassed when he finds out that his intensity has been noticed. “Yes, it’s true that the coaches do the counting, but I always feel I have to finish ahead of everyone else. So I go faster than the others. But when I do that, I feel like I have a lot of time. So, I don’t want to stand and rest and do nothing. So, I keep going,” he says. For Aman, just doing the same number of burpees as the wrestlers next to him doesn’t make sense. He isn’t comparing himself to them. “If your target is big, you have to do more than others. Mehnat sab karte hain. Isme koi badi baat nahi hai (Everyone works hard. There’s nothing special about that). If you want to go ahead of them, you have to do more than them,” he says.
That extra work on his endurance explains why Aman wrestles the way he does. “His game is one of endurance. He fights for all six minutes of a bout. And he has the belief that ‘I will win’. He will attack for the full 360 seconds. An opponent is going to be careless and tired for at least a few seconds during that. They can’t deal with his pace. Yeh lagatar chalta hai. Thakta nahi hai (He keeps going. He doesn’t get tired),” says Praveen.
Aman still doesn’t have his picture in the training hall of Chhatrasal Stadium. But if he keeps up his recent performances, it’s hard to see how long that will remain. He was already a two-time national champion when he competed at the U-23 World Championships in Spain last year. There he created history, becoming the first Indian to win gold in that competition. In doing so, he went one better than Olympic and world medallists Bajrang and Ravi, both of whom took silver at the U-23 World Championships.
Now Aman has been knocking on the doors of the senior age group too. Last month, he won a gold medal in the men’s 57kg category at the Asian Championships, finishing ahead of a field that included 2021 World silver medallist Alireza Sarlak and 2022 World fifth-place finisher Wanhao Zou.
Despite his victories, Aman is far from satisfied with where he is. “Right now, I’ve achieved nothing. I might be a national champion, but if I didn’t win it, someone else from India would have won it. My gold medal is at the Asian level. There are other stronger wrestlers from the USA, Russia, and Europe. I still have to beat them. I think as a wrestler, I will give myself 60 marks out of 100,” he says.
What his international wins did for him, he admits, was give him the confidence that at least he was on the right track. “It gives me the belief that I am doing things the right way. That I can fight and win at the senior level internationally,” he says.
Aman’s mentality can be summed up by a quote just next to the bed in his room at Chhatrasal Stadium. “If it were easy, everyone would do it,” reads the quote below the hand-painted Olympic rings. “I like that message a lot. Wrestling is not easy. There are days when I feel like sleeping a little bit more and not going for morning practise at 5 a.m. Then I see that quote next to my face, and I know I have to get up,” he says.
And so, Aman pushes himself a little more in training every day. There are no easy days. “I don’t think any day is an easy day or a rest day. Jis din paseene nahi aate so nahi pata (The day I don’t sweat, I am not able to sleep) I think something is missing,” he says.
Indeed, Aman’s life revolves around training and competition. This is not a new phenomenon. It’s been that way since the time he first arrived at Chhatrasal Stadium as a 10-year-old boy from his village of Birohar in Haryana’s district. “He has almost no distractions. He has a singular focus on training. Aman rarely even goes home,” says coach Praveen.
Some of that is due to Aman’s childhood. After both his parents passed away early in his life, the stadium has been not just a place to train but also his home. “Chhatrasal Stadium is my home. The wrestlers here are my family. If someone comes and asks me to go somewhere, I make it clear that I’m not leaving Chhatrasal for some time. Now people also know that this is my mentality. I don’t like roaming around or going around Delhi,” he says.
Aman’s single-minded focus, as the painting of the five rings in his room suggests, remains the Olympic Games. For all his achievements, his task of getting to Paris will not be an easy one. Perhaps his biggest hurdle won’t be abroad, but right here in Chhatrasal.
India’s current best in the men’s 57kg category remains Ravi, the three-time Asian Champion and Tokyo silver medallist. The one time the two wrestlers met, at a selection trial for the Commonwealth Games last year, Ravi won easily.
“I didn’t fight freely against Ravi. I fought too defensively. I don’t know what happened. I’ve never fought like that since then,” Aman says.
Coaches at Chhatrasal admit that, as things stand, it is Ravi who is the more complete wrestler. “Right now, Ravi and Aman are the best in the country in this weight category. But Ravi is no doubt a senior and has maturity and experience,” says coach Lalit Kumar, who has worked with both wrestlers.
But Aman’s loss was a year ago. Since then, he has continued to work on his weaknesses while sharpening his strengths. “Right now, Aman still concedes a lot of points because his leg defence is a little weak. It was manageable when he was competing in the juniors. But at the senior level, opponents don’t let you get away so easily. But he is a wrestler who picks up things very quickly. In another four or five months, he will be a much stronger wrestler than he is right now,” says Lalit Kumar.
With major competitions like the Worlds and the Asian Games coming up around then, might Aman prove to be a top contender ahead of even Ravi? Coaches can only smile for now. “Aman is going to continue working hard and improving.” If he stays away from injury and stays disciplined, you never know. It could be his picture on the wall next,” says coach Praveen.
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