Feature

Meet Dada Lavate: A former wrestler who is living his dreams through pupils like Nandini Salokhe and Swati Shinde

Olympic Channel tracks the journey of a man who is determined to help his pupils reach the stars

By Soham Mukherjee ·

Akhara. Dangal. Pehelwani. These three were the most used words in renowned wrestling coach Dada Lavate's family.

He is in the news after one of his proteges in Nandini Salokhe won the national wrestling title in the 53kg category recently and became Tokyo-bound Vinesh Phogat's back-up. Another of Lavate's pupil in Swati Shinde also did well in the nationals, winning bronze in the 50kg category.

Lavate was a wrestler himself and he recounted his early days in a freewheeling chat with the Olympic Channel.

He grew up in the middle of a thriving wrestling culture in his village in the Malshiras Taluka of Solapur district in Maharashtra. His father was a wrestler which eased his introduction into the sport.

When he was in the fifth standard, he first stepped into a wrestling pit. No one would even dream of a proper synthetic mat. A sticky ring of mud and soil was all they had got.

Lavate understood that if had to make it big in wrestling, he needed to step out from Malshiras.

"I was looking for an opportunity. Then Tanhaji Langde, a wrestler from our village who used to practice in Pune, after watching me play came up to me and advised that I should appear for trials in SAI (Sports Authority of India), Sangli," recounted the coach to Olympic Channel.

Langde accompanied him to Sangli for the trials and the young wrestler did not disappoint. He got selected and it seemed that life would change for the better.

"I started wrestling on the mat. My studies were taken care of and I was under a good coach. Finally, I could dream again."

In 2002, he won a medal in the school nationals in the 50kg weight category and three years later, he bagged a silver in the university nationals in the 55kg weight category.

But as the intensity of his training increased, his dietary requirements were burning a hole in his pocket. His family survived on a shoestring budget and his expenses were further stifling them.

"I started participating in dangals (local wrestling tournaments) to win cash prizes. One of them was in Solapur. Nagesh Gaiwakad organised it. I won several bouts over there. He was impressed by my wrestling. The family condition was poor and he agreed to help with Rs 2000 every month."

Moreover, if he won a national level tournament, he was rewarded 5000.

"It gave me a lot of confidence. So I got motivated and started practising harder. My family could not support my diet. If it wasn't for the sponsorship then I would have left wrestling much earlier."

Lavate decided to take a step further and applied at the National Institute of Sports (NIS), Patiala. He completed his bachelor's in physical education. But destiny had other plans for him.

"By then I was earning enough to support myself. But my family was still struggling. I also suffered a knee injury. It kept me out for five-six months. After that, I always had a fear, what if it recurred. I had to return to my village. I started job hunting."

After a lull of almost two years, he saw a glimmer of hope when a SAI training centre was set up at Murgud in Kolhapur.

"CV Chauhan was the co-ordinator of SAI at that time in Maharashtra. I had trained under him. He knew that I was free and he recommended my name."

Dada Lavate with Nandini Salokhe after winning Gold in national championship

Lavate got a new lease on life. He now had an opportunity to live his dreams once again, this time as a coach.

"At first, the SAI centre had the capacity for only 20 wrestlers. Chauhan Sir said that the strength must be equally distributed amongst girls and boys. So 10 seats were for girls and 10 for boys. Nandini (Salokhe) and Swati (Shinde) was scouted in the first batch itself.

"But getting women candidates were an issue. I had to go around the village and convince some parents that SAI gives a stipend and if you win nationals then you might even get a job. After that, four girls came."

Presently, there are more than 150 cadets at the centre in SAI. He has made a name for himself as a trainer despite falling short as a wrestler. He has gone on to build a hostel, free for all, from his own expenses which can host 50 girls.

"Many students came from other districts and they had to rent a place over here. I started this in January 2019. I did not ask for any help because many would think that I am making this for myself. It is 1km from the SAI centre. Previously, many girls used to come and they had to go back because there were no rooms in the hostel. Now they don't have to go back."

Lavate accompanies the girls wherever they travel. He was in Agra during the recently concluded nationals where Nandini Salokhe won gold in the 53kg weight category whereas Swati bagged a bronze in the 50kg category.

"We went to Agra three days before the nationals. We had to get used to the cold. Here in Kolhapur, the weather is different. It is nice that it worked well in the end."

However, he is not ready to rest on the laurels. He is aiming for the stars. A podium finish in the Olympics.

"I could not go far due to economical problems and a knee injury. But they are doing well. It feels good. Lekin abhi toh shuruwad hai."

Indeed, the journey has just begun.