The 125kg grappler became a hero in Turkey after winning his nation’s only gold medal at Rio 2016, but did you know he barely ate anything before his final bout? More on that below!
Taha Akgul has a big presence in Turkey, in every sense of the word.
Standing at 1.92m (6ft 4in) and weighing 125kg (276lb), he cuts a formidable figure. But it’s his exploits as a freestyle wrestler that have won him so much acclaim.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics he won Turkey’s only gold medal, dominating Iran’s Komeil Ghasemi in the final 3-1.
But at the end of 2019, shortly after winning his seventh European Championships, Akgul was struck down with a serious shoulder injury that kept him out of the sport for a year.
As wrestling prepares to make its return from the coronavirus delay in Belgrade, December 12-18, the 30-year-old is nearing full fitness and is determined to retain his Olympic crown at the Tokyo Olympics.
But how well do you know the Turkish wrestler?
Taha Akgul was literally born into wrestling greatness.
He started competing aged 12 in Sivas, which boasts no less than three Olympic wrestling champions.
Growing up in the Akgul household, whenever relatives visited they would put on wrestling bouts in the living room, which represents perfectly what the sport means to their community.
Nutrition plays an increasingly key role in preparing elite athletes to perform at their best.
But the pressure on Akgul’s shoulders to bring home gold was so great during the Rio 2016 Olympics, that he could not eat anything before his big final as he was so nervous.
He wrestled three bouts in the morning, but from midday until his final at seven o'clock in the evening, he ate just one banana.
“If we had to come back to Turkey without any gold medals, that would be bad for the country. But everyone thought, 'OK, Taha is still remaining and he will get the gold.' That was the expectation in everyone's hearts and minds, which created so much pressure on me,” he told Olympic Channel through video link.
But after winning, Akgul headed straight to the athletes canteen and remained there for hours, replenishing lost nutrients and answering congratulatory phone calls, including one from Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Akgul became an overnight hero back in Turkey, and was flooded with adulation, as well as media and corporate invitations.
Such success has led many athletes to lose focus or the motivation to keep performing at the top level.
But not this champion. Far from basking in the trappings of fame, he made a decision to keep his life as simple as possible, and to focus only on winning another gold medal at Tokyo 2020.
“I can say nothing has changed in my life after Rio,” he continued to Olympic Channel.
“I always like a humble, modest lifestyle, and that is still the case. And that is the secret. I can say I still live in the same apartment. I still drive the same car. And I still wear the same clothes. I still chat with the same friends. So that part did not change and I think that's the most important thing.
“I will become a legend in terms of freestyle wrestling (if I win gold again).”
While staying humble has undoubtedly played a part in Akgul’s success, his relentless dedication is perhaps even more impressive.
“I haven't been on holiday or any vacation for the past 10 years,” he revealed.
“My life is disciplined and I am also detached from my beloved friends and family. All I can say is that this is about dedication. This is about self sacrificing. Commitment brings long-term success.”
Given that Akgul also thinks he can challenge for another Olympics at Paris 2024 if his body holds up, his family and friends shouldn’t expect to see too much of him any time soon! That, and his rivals on the mat can expect to see a whole lot more of him.
The Turkish grappler already has two world titles, but once he has hung up his freestyle wrestling boots, there is one other sport he’d like to dominate: oil wrestling.
The sport is a national pastime in Turkey that goes back almost 700 years and, as the name suggests, involves wrestling while covered in oil.
In addition to the lubricant, competitors wear leather shorts, while traditional Turkish pipes provide the music.
Akgul has been asked several times to compete at the famous Kirkpinar event in his homeland and revealed why he would like to at some point.
“If I get the golden belt - which is the award they get after winning the Kirkpinar tournament - to go with my European, World and Olympic titles, my name will be written in the pages of history!”