If you don’t want pain, you go play chess,” screams Emzar Makhardze, a mountain of a man, and the Indian wrestling team’s Georgian coach. Immediately his wards get down to a hundred push-ups. This, after an exhausting training session at the Sports Authority of India training centre in Sonepat, near Delhi, for the Asian Championship that started in the Capital on Wednesday.
If it’s Makhardze’s job to push the wrestlers to their physical extreme, it’s Heath Matthews’ job to make sure they recover to full fitness for their bouts. The South African physio, who is the director of athletic performance at the Mittal Champions Trust (MCT), has had his hands full in the run-up to the Asian Championship: fine-tuning fitness regimens, assessing injuries and implementing recovery plans for the wrestlers under the MCT. Matthews worked with the who’s who of Indian sports, including tennis player Sania Mirza, badminton champion Saina Nehwal, and Olympic gold-winning shooter Abhinav Bindra, before his focus turned to the wrestlers. MCT has four wrestlers—Rahul Aware, Yogeshwar Dutt, Ramesh Kumar and Mausam Khatri—from the Indian team with whom they work currently.
“It’s a bit tricky because of communication problems,” he says. “With an athlete like Abhinav Bindra we are able to theorize our plan. But here, I have to show with implementation that the plan works. It’s a little bit more labour-intensive, but the wrestlers are pretty motivated and they are really keen to implement anything that helps them.” Matthews has picked up a smattering of Hindi, which he combines with a patient hands-on approach, showing the wrestlers exactly how certain exercises are done.
Heavy load: India’s Olympic bronze medallist Sushil Kumar (in black) at a practice session.
After Sushil Kumar’s bronze at the Beijing Olympics and Ramesh Kumar’s bronze at the 2009 World Wrestling Championship in Herning, Denmark, the Indian wrestling contingent is flush with excitement and aspirations. Sometimes, this means they risk overtraining and injury, and this is where Matthews’ expertise really kicks in. “We have to structure a system that is slightly more streamlined with regard to recovery and nutrition. It’s great to train really hard, but then we need to make sure that it’s balanced with recovery.”
Nineteen-year-old Rahul Aware, one of India’s most promising wrestlers, swears by Matthews. “He made so many vital changes in how we work out and recover,” says Aware, “that my flexibility, movement and fitness has become much better.”
In 2009, Aware faced a tricky knee surgery after injuring a major ligament, but Matthews made sure it never got to that. “That’s the great thing about working for the Mittal Champions Trust. We had the funding to get a special tape that allowed him (Aware) to have full flexibility in his knee, but was rigid enough to protect the part that was damaged whenever there was pressure on it,” says Matthews.
Aware lost in the bronze medal bout in the 2009 Asian Wrestling Championship in Pattaya, Thailand, but with all the extra help he’s getting, he feels a medal is sure to come his way this time around. “Hundred per cent,” he says.
Matthews is also trying to assess what makes Indian wrestlers unique, and why they are becoming a major force in international competitions. “They soak almonds overnight and then mix it with milk and drink it in the morning. All the wrestlers believe that this is what gives them an extra edge,” he says. “If you look at their size and how hard they train, I think there has to be fair comment involved in its benefits. We want to run lab tests and see why it works.”
Explosive power: Physio Heath Matthews fine-tunes wrestler Rahul Aware’s strength training.
Matthews believes yoga is another training component that makes Indian wrestlers different. “If you look at a wrestler who is not flexible, they are easy to beat, regardless of their strength and power,” he says. “Perhaps the greatest strength for Indian wrestlers is the natural emphasis that gets placed upon yoga.”
After 3 hours of intense training, Matthews helps Aware stretch and cool down, while Olympic medallist Kumar wraps up his training for the day. Despite the pressure on him to perform every time he steps on the mat, Kumar looks completely relaxed. “My training has gone well, I’ve dropped weight, and this time we used video inputs to make specific strategies for the wrestlers we will face. I’m happy with our preparation,” he says.
Kumar also feels that the Indian contingent he is leading is better prepared than ever before. “The training facilities and the fantastic support staff we now have is making a big difference,” Kumar says, “Rahul Aware, Ramesh Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt are all potential champions and our team is completely ready.”
Photographs by Priyanka Parashar / Mint
Sushil Kumar (66kg freestyle) and Rahul Aware (55kg freestyle) will be competing at the 2010 Asian Wrestling Championship at the Indira Gandhi Stadium, Delhi today. The championship is on till 16 May.