Training, diet, and a fight against finances: The life of a pahalwan

Despite rigorous training and unwavering devotion, the players’ financial condition and lack of support at early stages are to be blamed for a low medal tally in a country which has talent in abundance.

Bajrang Punia being declared winner in the Finals of men's freestyle wrestling (65kg) at the Asian Games 2018.   -  PTI

“I want to become like Sushil Kumar,” says 9-year-old Yash, while surrounded by a group of young pahalwans (wrestlers) in training, all aged between 9 and 12.

Far away from home at the Chhatrasal Stadium, the young boy from a small village of Asoda in Haryana's Bahadurgarh is dreaming of things that not many nine-year-olds dream of.

With Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat grabbing gold and Divya Kakran a bronze at the ongoing Asian Games in Indonesia, the city’s akhadas (wrestling rings) are buzzing with energy.

Meenakshi Gahlout, a 20-year-old wrestler from Jhajjar, Haryana, is among some 40 young wrestlers at the Master Chandgiram Akhara, the first such centre to train women wrestlers in the Training under Sahdev Singh Balyan.

Gahlout, who joined the akhada only a month ago after a gap of three years following an injury, likes the practice schedule and coaches here.

“Coaching is tougher and advanced here. We go for running, sprint, then PT and bouts on the mat. They prepare us for the next level competitions with rigorous training,” she says.

A usual day begins at 5 am with a run. Once a week, all the wrestlers go for a 7 to 8 km cross-country running. The morning ends with an exhausting session of pushups and dips. To support the strenuous regime, the body is replenished with milk, eggs, fruits, juice, glucose and protein supplement.

Another wrestler, Amit Kumar (22), from Sonepat, has been training for the last eight years. Inspired by his uncle, who trained under the legendary Chandgi Ram back in the day, he wants to become an Olympian.

“I have yet to go a long distance, make it through national championship, then international. But eventually I want to make the country proud the way Bajrang Punia did.”

Virender Kumar, one of the wrestling coaches at Chhatrasal Stadium, says that despite rigorous training and unwavering devotion, the players’ financial condition and lack of support at early stages are to be blamed for a low medal tally in a country which has talent in abundance.

“They (players) come from very poor rural families. They feed one child while cutting back on everyone else in the family. They eat less, so this one child can have a proper diet. Now that Bajrang (Punia) got a medal, Sushil Kumar got a medal in Olympics, they will get sponsorship, but there is no one to fund the others while they are training to reach that place. We need to support them from the very beginning,” he says.

Wrestling requires a heavy diet throughout the day along with protein supplements.

“We (coaches) can train them the best we can, but they also need a diet to match. If they don’t get a proper diet, supplements, there are chances of getting injured. How will they perform in such a situation?” he asks.

While Chhatrasal is a government-run training centre, the situation is similar at privately-run hubs like the Master Chandgiram Akhara.

Balyan, who has trained hundreds of young grapplers since 1985, echoes Kumar’s views on lack of financial assistance from the higher ups.

“All three players, who got medals in Asian games are from rural areas. Their parents have provided for them, that is the government’s duty. Everyone wants medals from wrestlers, but no one wants to provide for them."

“How will they get medals without proper diet, lack of proper training. They don’t even have money to buy a pack of glucose for themselves. The government needs to increase the sports budget,” says Balyan.

The wrestlers at the akhada have separate AC hostels for girls and boys, an AC hall with mat for practice, free of cost for the trainees including the training. However, they have to pay for their own food.

“If government starts funding wrestlers for food only, 80 per cent medals will come from this country. They have to take almonds, milk, ghee, protein supplements. Just consider one packet of 2.5kg protein costs somewhere around Rs seven to eight thousand, how can anyone afford that?” asks Balyan.

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