The heavy thud of wrestlers hitting the mat sent shock waves through the room. Emzar Makhardze, the Georgian coach of the Indian wrestling team, singled out a grappler in the mess of twisting bodies, screwed his face in disgust and shouted: “Two points. You just lost two points. Balance! Where’s your balance?”
Click here to watch a slideshow showing what it takes to be an elite wrestler
In the large room at the training centre of the Sports Authority of India in Sonepat, near New Delhi, a 12x12m yellow square mat was the centre of all the action. Earlier this week, we visited Sonepat to watch how the Indian wrestling team was preparing for the Asian Championship, which ends in Delhi on Sunday, and the Commonwealth Games which will be held in October.
Olympics bronze medallist and Asian champion Sushil Kumar entered the ring after the rest of the team finished its session. He went straight down on the floor with his sparring partner. They circled each other with intense concentration before Kumar lunged forward at lightning speed, grabbed his partner’s waist and twisted him around the back in a graceful arc that ended with a bone-crunching fall on the mat. For the next hour, the two wrestlers sweated it out silently, moving with surprising speed and agility for such muscle-bound men. The silence was broken only when one of them fell on the mat.
The new training centre comes equipped with two Olympic-size wrestling mats, a state-of-the-art gymnasium and a running track. The wrestlers have air-conditioned lodgings. A massive new gym and training centre, almost the size of a football field, is nearing completion. This infrastructure renders new-age wrestling a world apart from the traditional sport whose rules, techniques and training regimens were described in the 13th century text Malla Purana, and the mud-pit akharas where Indian team wrestlers, including Kumar, began their journey from. “There were only a handful of wrestling mats in India before Sushil won at the Olympics,” says Jagminder Singh, India’s freestyle wrestling chief coach. “Now, you will be hard-pressed to find a single akhara or club in India that does not have a mat along with the traditional mud pit.”
Kumar says the changes are positive, but the secret to his success is that he started in the traditional way in an akhara, which shaped not just his physique, but also made him mentally strong. The wrestlers still straddle both worlds at the training centre, following a diet popularized by the akharas. Kumar begins his day with a big glass of milk blended with crushed almonds. He prepares this himself, as do most other Indian wrestlers. “Traditionally, a wrestler in India prepares all his food. It is like making an offering at a temple; in this case, his own body,” says Singh.
Kumar follows the milk and almond shake with half a cup of ghee, a bowl of porridge with full-cream milk, a bowl of fruits, two bananas, a few pieces of toast and a protein shake. Enough energy there for the training routine that follows—20 minutes of running, 500 push-ups, 500 squats, stretching, and then an hour of wrestling practice.
After every practice session, the wrestlers drink copious quantities of sweet lime or orange juice (another age-old akhara tradition) and more protein shakes. In the evening, it’s time for three more hours of brutal training—climbing up and down a 20ft-long rope without using the feet to grip the rope (Kumar can do it 50 times in a day). This strengthens their upper body. It’s followed by a session of weight training at the gym and finally, a brief bout on the mat.
There is a big change from the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where coach Satpal Singh doubled up as the masseur for Kumar. It’s not just the wrestling surface or training facilities that have changed—the Indian wrestling team now has two foreign coaches, two Indian coaches, two physiotherapists, a doctor and a masseur.
The Mittal Champions Trust, set up to help elite athletes in India, has also thrown its weight behind the team, with its director of athletic performance, South-African Heath Matthews, spending time in Sonepat trying to fine-tune the training and recovery procedures followed by the grapplers. “The support we are getting now is unprecedented,” says Kumar, “I think (that) with this kind of backing, we are looking at a large medal haul at the Commonwealth Games.”
The Asian Wrestling Championship is on at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium, New Delhi, till 16 May (2-9.30pm).