Indian wrestler Sushil Kumar has never let the odds slow him down.
A three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist and a former World Wrestling Championships winner, Sushil Kumar earned most of his stripes defying the odds on the back of his iron will.
"People have this perennial habit of writing me off now and then, but it does not affect me." – Sushil Kumar told PTI.
And, perhaps, the best case studies of his dogged perseverance are Sushil Kumar’s Olympic medals – a bronze at the 2008 Beijing and a silver at the 2012 London Games.
Here’s how Sushil Kumar won a bronze and galvanised Indian wrestling.
Sushil Kumar’s fight against the odds began at a young age. His family wasn’t well off, and supporting Sushil’s aspirations to become a wrestler was a challenge.
His inspiration was his cousin Sandeep, who then sacrificed his own dreams of becoming a wrestler so the family could support Sushil’s career.
As he moved to Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium to train at the tender age of 14, Sushil Kumar was determined not to let his cousin’s decision go in vain.
It was there his Olympic dream was cultivated by coach Satpal Singh. Having represented India in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, missing out on an Olympic medal was always a sore point for Satpal and he wanted to live his dream through his student.
It was not long before Sushil Kumar started living up to his promise on the international arena, winning bronze at the 2003 Asian Wrestling Championships.
He also placed fourth in that year’s World Championships in New York to earn qualification for the 2004 Athens Games. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) sent him to Bulgaria to prepare for his maiden Olympics.
Sushil Kumar’s Olympic debut, however, didn’t go as planned. Then 21, he bowed out of the 60kg category with a first round loss to Cuba's Yandro Quintana – the eventual gold-medallist.
The Indian wrestler, however, took the loss in his stride.
"Athens was a memorable experience for me. It set the tone for my eventual success in Beijing." - Sushil Kumar was quoted in the book My Olympic Journey.
Leading up to the 2008 Beijing Games, Sushil Kumar prepared himself for a medal run with consistent performances, winning bronze at the 2006 Asian Games and clinching silver at the 2007 Asian Championships.
Having moved up to the 66kg category for the Beijing Games, Sushil Kumar’s first bout was against Ukraine's Andriy Stadnik. The Indian’s gold medal hopes were dashed after a loss to the eventual silver medallist.
However, with Stadnik reaching the finals, Sushil Kumar was handed a new lifeline as he headed into the repechage rounds in quest of a bronze.
First up, was American wrestler Doug Schwab. In what was a tough contest, the Indian triumphed 4-1, 0-1, 3-2 to advance.
The second bout saw Sushil lock horns against Belarusian grappler Albert Batyrov. This also went the distance, but it was the Indian who emerged victorious 1-0,0-4,7-0 to set up a bronze medal bout.
With Kazakhstan’s Leonid Spiridonov standing between him and the medal, Sushil Kumar took the initiative and won the first round 2-1.
Spiridonov took the fight to Sushil Kumar in the second round, which was a battle of nerves. As neither wrestler wasa able to score a point in the allocated two minutes, the round went into the tie-breaker through clinch.
Unfortunately for the Indian, it was Spiridonov who won the toss for the clinch and took the advantageous position.
The Kazakh gripped Sushil’s left leg and lifted it up in the air, forcing the Indian wrestler to balance using just his right leg while fending off his opponent’s attempts of a takedown.
Desperate to overturn the Kazakh’s advantage, Sushil Kumar attempted the kainchi daav or the scissors move – which involves using one’s only standing leg to sweep the opponent off balance and lock him in a leg scissors.
Spiridonov, however, managed to counter and won the round to level 1-1.
The scissors move takes impeccable precision and timing and is unforgiving if not executed perfectly. “If you make the mistake of a 100th of a second, you lose a point,” Sushil Kumar told the Outlook website.
The third and deciding round, similar to the second, turned out to be a close affair and was again scoreless by the end of regulation time.
This time, it was to be a clinch for an Olympic medal.
Luck wasn’t in Sushil Kumar’s favour yet again as he lost the toss for the clinch and the Kazakh took up a similar position of advantage. The odds were stacked overwhelmingly against the Indian.
"Wrestling experts say that the Kazakhstan wrestler had 99 per cent of the bout in his favour and I had 1 per cent. I made a comeback in that one per cent and won the medal." - Sushil Kumar said in Sony Sports' The Medal of Glory show.
Perhaps more surprising was the way Sushil Kumar turned that one per cent to a win. Knowing he was at a serious disadvantage yet again, Sushil Kumar, once again, opted to go for the scissor move.
It took nerves of steel to attempt a move he had failed to execute just moments earlier, especially in a crunch situation like that.
No one was expecting Sushil’s daring gambit, including Spiridonov.
This time, though, the Indian executed it with clinical precision.
With it, Sushil Kumar brought home India’s first wrestling medal since KD Jadhav’s 1952 triumph, ending a long 56-year wait and giving Indian wrestling a much-needed shot in the arm.
“I had won the most important medal of my life and repaid my coach for all the faith he had reposed in me and the time he had invested in me,” Sushil said in the book My Olympic Journey: 50 of India's Leading Sportspersons on the Biggest Test of Their Career by Amit Bose and Digvijay Singh Deo.
Sushil won the silver medal four years later in London, but it was his bronze in Beijing which helped turn the focus back on wrestling in India and provided the platform on which Yogeshwar Dutt and Sakshi Malik’s Olympic triumphs were built on.