Wrestling is a popular sport in northern India. Several regular, working-class people train at akhadas and participate in local competitions, but not many take the leap to the pro level. The performances of Sushil Kumar though have taken things to a whole new level.
The Indian wrestler is the only athlete from the nation to win two individual Olympic medals - a historic bronze at Beijing 2008 before stepping up the podium to silver at London 2012.
Kumar can also add the small matter of a world championship and golds in three consecutive Commonwealth Games sprinkled in for effect.
Sushil Kumar’s 74kg gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games was his last medal though, as he suffered a first-round exit at the Asian Games and then an injury that saw him out of action for several months.
Jitender Kumar’s silver at the Asian Wrestling Championships in February seriously hampered his chances of a fourth Olympics appearance and at 37, not many would give him a chance.
Sushil Kumar accepts his age
However, he believes the years rolling by is offset by the experience he has gained. “I don’t feel bad when people say age is getting the better of me because they love me and support me as well,” he told the Olympic Channel in a chat.
“Yes, I’m ageing, and I cannot change the fact, but I believe that with age comes experience. One’s ability to play gets richer as well. Some things are taken away with age, but one also gets a whole lot of things. So, I would bank on my experience to play.”
Wrestling the pressure
While winning multiple titles and Olympic medals has deservedly seen the wrestler lauded for his exploits, it also serves to increase expectations on him at every tournament.
For Sushil Kumar, who competed in only seven events in seven years following his silver at the 2012 Olympics, it rings true even more. Having won both his Olympic medals in the 66kg category, he decided to make the shift to 74kg but the fans’ expectations from him remain the same.
The pressure that accompanies it may consume some, but it does not affect the Indian wrestler. “Once you win a medal, people will always want you to win another one. But I want to convey everyone that I am never under pressure,” he stated.
“I focus on my fitness and training and I believe everything will go fine.”
Setting short-term goals
Sushil Kumar began training with Russian coach Kamal Malikov before the World Championships last year and claimed that his experience was ‘mixed’ and that he had only grappled to announce to the world that he was still going strong.
He has set short goals for himself and the foremost of those is to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. “My primary focus is on qualifying for the Olympics and only then that will I plan about other things,” he expressed. “One cannot perform well with too much going in the head.”
And his response about leaving his wrestling shoes on the mat is instantly dismissed: “I haven’t thought anything about my retirement.”
Another shot at Olympics qualification
Though Sushil Kumar was understandably sad about the decision to postpone the Games, like many others he also believes it was the best they could do.
“The decision was right because health comes first. We can all see that the whole world is affected by it. The Olympic preparations span over a long period of time but one cannot really do much in such a scenario,” he admitted.
So far, Indian wrestlers have bagged four quota places for the Tokyo Olympics and Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia and Ravi Kumar Dahiya are expected to be the ones to travel as part of the Indian wrestlers’ contingent.
Sushil Kumar has already stated his intentions to expand that number and make the voyage himself and a one-year delay arguably gives him a better chance at doing so.
If he does make the grade, and no one would bet against him, it would be a poetic ending to a storied career.