What it takes to win gold7 min read . Updated: 09 Aug 2014, 01:10 AM IST
Two Commonwealth Games gold medal winners on how they finished on top, and what lies ahead in a packed competition year
New Delhi: When Babita Kumariwon the gold medal in women’s freestyle wrestling at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Glasgow, she was making the games her own. More accurately, she was making it her family’s own. Babita is the second of five wrestler-sisters born into the Phogat family in Haryana’s Balali village. The third sister, Vinesh, won a gold at Glasgow too. This is the second time that two Phogat sisters have finished on the podium at CWG: in 2010, the eldest sister Geeta won a gold, while Babita won silver. Geeta, who is the only woman from India to have played at the Olympics (she fought in the 2012 Games), was recovering from surgery during CWG.
For 27-year-old badminton player Parupalli Kashyap, a gold at Glasgow was the result of grit and patience. Kashyap has been India’s top-ranked men’s singles player for a while now, and despite polished performances at top tournaments, has often been just shy of winning. Now he is part of a short and proud list: Only two Indians have won the men’s singles at a CWG before him—Prakash Padukone and Syed Modi.
The two gold medallists talk about their path to the medal, and what lies ahead. Edited excerpts:
Can you imagine if three sisters qualify for the Olympics?
Two sisters, two golds, how special is that?
It was a moment of pure happiness. Vinesh won the gold two days before my fight, and she told me, let’s hold on to the celebrations till you win yours. I was so happy, excited and confident that I could not wait to get on the mat. Both of us winning gold, that’s the way we always want it.
This is a tough year with the Asian Games (19 September-4 October in Incheon, South Korea) following CWG so quickly, with the Fila World Wrestling Championship (8-14 September, Tashkent, Uzbekistan) in between. How do you prepare and recover within this short time?
Yes, we will be heading straight for the trials now, then the national camp, it’s non-stop. I don’t think it will be possible for us to do both the world championship and the Asian Games. The federation will send a B team for the world championship after the trials, and the toppers will go to the Asian Games. It’s not ideal.
You got injured before the day of your bouts? How bad was it?
I damaged a knee ligament during training in Glasgow. It was very painful. The doctors there did an MRI—it was a grade-2 tear—the doctors said you can’t play in this condition. I was devastated. I said, “You just do whatever therapy you can keeping in mind that I’ll play, and then we’ll see." I called Geeta and she said, “Will you fight?" I said yes. She asked me about the pain, and I said it was not so bad. She said, “Don’t lie!" I told her that I don’t care how bad it is, if I can stand, I will fight, and we will see. It’s OK if I lose, but I’m not going to give up without fighting.
How were the preparations before you went for CWG?
We had a long camp in Lucknow. Since 2010, the support and funding for the women’s team has been improving. We have more coaches now, more physios, better rooms, better equipment. We were sent to the US before the Olympics, and then again earlier this year, and that was invaluable because of the knowledge we get from the coaches there. JSW has signed us up to train at their new sports facility, so that will be great as well.
Geeta had surgery on her knee in Mumbai and she was in rehabilitation, but she came down to the Lucknow camp before the CWG and stayed there with us and worked tirelessly to take care of us. She gave us tips during training, fired us up when we needed it, helped us relax when we needed that. If we needed anything, she got it for us. She did it all.
Geeta plays a big role in your life, and in your wrestling…
She is our inspiration. You don’t know how all us sisters felt when she became the first woman from India to qualify for the Olympics (in 2012). That day, everything was clear. All of us have to get to the Olympics. All of us have to win medals there. Can you imagine, if three sisters, or four sisters, all of them qualify for the Olympics? Is that a record of some sort? We hope that day comes soon.
Your father Mahavir Singh trained all five of you in his own ‘akhara’ in the village. How tough was it for you to grow up as wrestlers?
We loved the life of a wrestler. All the pain and fighting and sleeping on the mat exhausted, was always a great adventure for all of us. Especially since we were all in it together. But our father took on plenty of trouble for us. First, we were girls in what our village considers strictly a man’s sport. On top of that, we were practising and fighting with the boys. That was just a step too far. There was constant trouble in the village because of that. People wanted to ostracize our family. But father never really let us feel it. He used to tell us, “You do your job, don’t waste time thinking of who is saying what. Let me handle that." Now it’s completely different. Now when we win a medal, there is a fresh surge of girls who come to join the akhara. But a lot of girls and their families think that if they work extremely hard for six-seven months, they will start seeing results. Actually, you have to work extremely hard for six-seven years before you get anywhere. Look at Vinesh. She has been wrestling for nine years now, and this is her first time on the big stage.
What can the government do to help sportswomen get even better?
My father’s akhara never got any help from the government. There are all kinds of schemes that the Haryana government runs, but there is no clarity in the procedure; they only help those with contacts and influence. They should make these schemes much more transparent. At least in the Olympic training centres, things are more equal now. We get everything that the men get, there is no difference. We do need more women coaches, maybe the government can help do that.
I like being in this list. I belong here.
The way you celebrated after the win said it all. Is this the best win you’ve had?
It was a serious adrenalin rush. The match was tight, and I had played so many matches already, fatigue was creeping in. In the final game, every point was gruelling. I was keeping all my emotions in check, staying cool. So in the end, I just let myself go. I have had better wins, against much higher-ranked opponents, but this must be the most satisfying one in a long, long time.
You are only the third person from India to win a men’s singles gold at CWG. The others are both legends of the game. Does that feel like added pressure?
Obviously when I am playing, these thoughts don’t occur at all. My mind is just on the game. These are things for journalists to write on. There is no pressure at all. It’s a great feeling. I like being here, in this list. I belong here.
You make it to a lot of semifinals at the top tournaments—you were in the 2012 Olympics quarterfinals for example, where you lost to the World no. 1 and eventual champion. Is this gold a breakthrough for you?
For me, I am happy that I play at a level where I can consistently get to the final stages of these tournaments. These semifinals, quarterfinals you are talking about, these are all at the top-most competitions in the world. I know also that if I keep making it to the semis, then it is only a matter of time till I’m in a final, and then it’s just one more step to winning one. I knew the medal was only one step away. But the gold here, perhaps it will be a breakthrough in my mind, but I will keep playing the way I know best, keep training harder, working harder. The rest will happen.
It’s just back-to-back major competitions for you now. What are the plans to cope with this schedule?
Oh yes, this is a very tough year. We have to be very careful with our training, and our recovery. We have extremely short windows between the biggest tournaments. I barely have 10 days to get ready for the world championships (25-31 August, Copenhagen, Denmark). Then on to Asian Games. Physically, I am already at my peak, so we will focus mostly on recovery, and game strategies, work out a few kinks in the game I suppose, but the coach and I haven’t sat down yet to chalk out the strategy. We have all been just too tired, and trying to recover as quickly as we can without damaging the body.