Sushil Kumar is sitting bare-chested on his bed as Arvinder Pal Singh, the Indian wrestling team’s physiotherapist, carefully tapes his injured calf muscle. “It’s just a minor tweak,” Kumar says, “(need to) keep the muscle warm.” Kumar’s younger brother Amardeep enters the room holding a red T-shirt with a printed picture of Kumar pinning down an opponent in a tangle of limbs. It’s an iconic photograph, at least in wrestling circles, because it shows Kumar winning the bronze medal fight at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “That’s a good one brother,” Kumar says, before turning his attention to us. “What will you drink? Lassi? Have you eaten? Do you want breakfast?”
We are at the Sports Authority of India’s residential training centre for elite wrestlers in Sonepat on the outskirts of Delhi, a place Kumar calls home, and he is adamant that we eat and drink everything that is available at the canteen. His room, which he shares with three other wrestlers and his younger brother, is tiny, with barely enough room to stand next to the beds.
King of the mat: Kumar says his achievements are finally giving wrestling the impetus it needs. ‘The next generation will benefit hugely from the improved infrastructure,’ he says. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
A small TV is perched on top of a steel cupboard, and jars of protein powder take up all the space on top of the solitary table. It’s not the kind of room you expect India’s first Olympic medallist in wrestling since 1952 to stay in.
“You should have seen how we stayed before I won the medal.” Kumar says in Hindi. “It was a hot, claustrophobic place with 20 people to a room. We hardly had enough space to lie down and sleep.”
The 27-year-old wrestler from a small village called Baprola in Haryana is the toast of the international wrestling community after becoming the first Indian to win a gold medal at the World Wrestling Championship in Moscow on 12 September. A win, Kumar himself says, that is bigger than his Olympic medal. “Wrestlers, officials and journalists from around the world came up to me after the final,” Kumar says. “They knew it was historic. I had beaten world champions, Asian champions and Olympic champions. There was a lot of celebration.”
A look at Kumar’s route to the final shows the extent of his domination—a 6-0 routing of Greece’s Akritidis Anastasios in the second round, a 4-1 triumph over Germany’s Martin Sebastian in the pre-quarters, a 9-1 thrashing of Mongolia’s Buyanjav Batzorig in the quarter-finals. A few months before the World Championship, Kumar had won gold at the 2010 Asian Wrestling Championship in similar fashion. From a bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympics, Kumar is now the undisputed champion of his category.
But before Kumar’s Olympic medal, wrestling was a sport that hardly crossed the boundaries of the village akhara, the traditional mud pits where heavily oiled wrestlers grapple across rural India. In the two years since Beijing, wrestlers have their own dedicated training centre in Sonepat complete with a state-of-the-art gym, and imported Olympic-standard mats have become ubiquitous at akharas across the country.
“My father was a wrestler who did it the traditional way. And even I began my wrestling in mud pits,” says Kumar. “But these changes were highly needed. Now that all these improvements have begun, our juniors will truly benefit from it. Now we will churn out international-level wrestlers.”
Kumar’s wrestling career began when he was just 12 and had gone to see his father Diwan Singh fight in a wrestling bout during a village festival. Kumar was so excited that he repeatedly tried to trip his father after the bout. “I was a pest,” he recalls, “but from the next day my father started training me.” By the time Kumar was 14, it was evident that he had a gift for the sport, and his father took him to the akhara run by legendary Indian wrestler Satpal Singh at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi.
“That was my introduction to the lifestyle of a wrestler, where you sacrifice everything for the sport, and where your guru and the akhara are the only truths of your existence,” says Kumar. “Do you know, I’ve never even watched a movie in a theatre?”
Satpal Singh, who coached Kumar through most of the wrestler’s career, says Kumar’s success comes from his single-minded focus and his intensity in training. “He was quite a phenomenon even when he was really young,” says Singh. “If we told him to run a kilometre, he would do five. He would take on senior wrestlers without flinching. He could sustain himself bout after bout without getting demoralized or tired.”
Attributes you can still see clearly when Kumar trains. It’s so intense it’s painful—500 push-ups just to warm up, then 500 squats. Kumar hardly breaks a sweat before he grabs a 20ft rope and starts climbing up using only his arms. He does it quickly and efficiently, his torso rippling with muscles. Then he’s on the mat with a fellow wrestler, grappling, pushing, twisting and falling in quick succession.
He is built like a truck, but falls and recovers like a cat.
“Sushil’s success did not come overnight,” says Indian wrestling team’s chief coach Jagminder Singh. “He was the world cadet champion in 1998, the Asian junior champion in 2000, he won a bronze in the 2003 Asian Wrestling Championship. So it has been a long, successful road.”
Despite the long list of successes, it was only after the Olympics that Kumar burst into the limelight. When he landed in Delhi from Beijing, he was stunned at the reception he got.
“I have read of people dying in stampedes, but as a pehelwan I’ve always thought ‘I can’t die, I’ll just push my way through.’” Kumar chuckles. “But that day I felt fear—I realized even a wrestler can die in this kind of a crowd. This time, when I came back from Moscow, I was prepared.”
Kumar went straight back to training after returning triumphant from the World Championship, without even a day’s rest. Over the weekend, he says, he will go to his village to spend a day with his family.
“But every time I go to my village, everybody I meet—older people, younger people, groups of women—will come and tell me ‘you must work hard’. It’s such a bother!” Kumar says with a laugh. “But I’m glad the Commonwealth Games are in Delhi. Finally all these people in my village will be able to come and see me fight.”