India's Rahul Aware is ready for Olympic shot after wrestling anger issues into submission
Despite winning the 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medal at 57kg, it initially didn't look like the 28-year-old would be selected to compete at the Olympics. His path was blocked by compatriot Ravi Kumar who, as the 2019 world championships bronze medallist at 57kg, had already secured India’s Olympic berth in Aware's favoured weight category.
At the same 2019 world championships in Nur-Sultan, Aware decided to move up to the less-congested [but non-Olympic] 61kg bracket, where he also secured a bronze medal.
The next Olympic weight category he could realistically challenge for was 65kg, but with Bajrang Punia - considered one of the Asian nation’s top medal hopes - already having qualified that place, the door was all but shut on Aware.
“I think the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will go for selection trials. In such a scenario, I will give my 100 percent.”
However, there is no requirement for the athlete who qualified their nation’s spot at the Olympics to also compete at the Games. With such a long gap between the qualifying events in 2019 and the new Tokyo 2020 dates in 2021, Aware believes that he may still have a chance of being selected by the Indian Olympic Association.
“There is no guarantee that the wrestler who got India the slot would be in good form in future,” he told Sportstar. “I think the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will go for selection trials. In such a scenario, I will give my 100 percent.”
The kid with a short temper
If Aware was able to clinch a spot for the Olympics in 2021, it would be the ultimate tribute to his humble beginnings in the central Indian state of Maharashtra, where wrestling enjoys immense popularity.
As the son and grandson of former competitive wrestlers, it wasn’t long before Aware had his first taste of the sport, which proved to be an ideal outlet for his aggressive nature.
"Rahul used to quarrel a lot when he was in school,” his father Balasaheb Aware told PTI. “He was a short-tempered kid. Everyday some or the other villager would come to me with his complaints. It was then when I recognised the wrestler in him. His hot-headed nature helped him become a good wrestler.
By the age of 12, his potential to compete for higher honours was recognised, and he was sent to train under 1970 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Harishchandra Birajdar in Pune. This masterstroke was rewarded with seven gold medals at the senior nationals and eventually, Commonwealth and his world bronze titles too.
Aware's father who runs a free wrestling training centre in their home village, was ecstatic with his son’s achievement at the world championships given his humble beginnings. The family used to survive on Rs 15,000 [US$ 200] a week.
"We survived like this, and today such a big win of Rahul makes the entire town happy," he continued. “Rahul's historic win is the happiest moment for me. I was also a wrestler but due to lack of guidance I could not excel.”
The lowest point of Aware’s career to date came when he felt the national federation unfairly overlooked him for a place at the Rio 2016 Olympics.
After winning India’s national selection trials at 57kg, he wasn't selected to compete at an Olympic qualification tournament in Mongolia, where the young star would have been odds on to clinch one of the three qualifying places on offer.
Sandeep Tomar was chosen instead to represent India, and subsequently competed in Brazil.
Switching weight categories
Following his Olympic snub, Aware returned to mat hungrier - and more angry - than ever. In a gripping final bout at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast he overcame an injury to defeat Canada’s Steven Takahashi 15-7.
Despite this success, he chose to move up to the non-Olympic weight of 61kg for the 2019 World championships. Despite winning a bronze medal, Ravi Kumar’s bronze medal at 57kg meant Aware’s decision to change weight categories may have cost him a place at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
So why did he do it?
“I have been doing well in this weight category,” he told the Hindustan times of his decision to compete at 61kg. “I could have taken part in the 57kg category, but competing in the 61kg category has ensured I am winning medals consistently. I knew it is not an Olympic weight category, but I am focusing on step-by-step success.
“We are one year away for the Olympics and anything can happen, but if not this time I will surely make a mark in the 2024 Olympics and even in 2028.”
After working so hard to summit the peak of his sport after his Olympic disappointment in 2016, it would be a cruel stroke of fate if Aware was to miss out on another Olympic Games selection in Tokyo.
But he is playing the long game, and creating a foundation for future success. His main priority for now is to keep improving, and he believes that the more experience he can get competing against international opposition, the better.
“Participating regularly in international events has taught me about how I need to improve my technique,” he continued. “I got to know how wrestlers from Iran, Russia and the U.S. practice. We need to implement their style to get better on the mat. We need our wrestlers to get exposure to new techniques and skills.
If the boy from Maharashtra bounced back once to become the Commonwealth champion, just imagine what heights his drive - and obvious talent - could take him too in the future.