Taha Akgul's hard road back: “First I have to beat the psychological trauma”

Rio 2016 gold medallist attributes Turkey's prowess in freestyle wrestling to strong genetics and a very oily national pastime. 

Taha Akgul has defeated the biggest, and scariest of foes in wrestling.

The freestyle wrestler from Turkey threw 125kg+ men around the mat en route to Olympic gold at Rio 2016, but even he has had to accept defeat to the one opponent that can take out any sportsperson: injury.

Akgul was in a national training camp, preparing for the prestigious Yaşar Doğu event in December 2019, when he tore ligaments in his left shoulder.

Surgery was followed by a minimum 12-week rehabilitation period, meaning the reigning European Champion will not be able to add to his six titles at this year's event in Rome, (10-16 February 2020).

With the Tokyo 2020 just seven months away, the 29-year-old is now under no illusion that the battle to retain his Olympic title is as much mental, as it is physical.

"I have to first overcome this psychological trauma," Akgul told the Demirören News Agency.

"I may go to the Olympics with a possible trauma, but God-willing it will not affect me. I think that the stronger my shoulder, the sooner I can beat (the psychological problem)."

Withdrawing from social media

As part of Akgul's efforts to protect his mental state during rehabilitation, he has taken himself off social media in order to focus his efforts towards rehabilitation.

"I have recently withdrawn from social media in order to fully focus on my injury, and recovering for the Olympics," he continued to the Demirören News Agency.

"I think I will see the benefit of this in the Olympics, and I will be comfortable in the head.

"I don't have to prove anything to anyone. When I go there, I will fight for my country first and then for my family and myself. After all, I am an Olympic champion of champions.

"If necessary, I will increase from 5 to 7 or 8 hours a day (of training). I will adjust my food accordingly. I'm a person of that faith."

Turkish icon

With two World Championships gold medals, six European Championships titles, and a European Games victory, you can see why Akgul is considered the best Turkish wrestler of his generation.

Quite an accolade, given Turkey's 29 Olympic gold medals places them fifth on the all-time list of Olympic wrestling titles.

But where does this talent come from? According to the wrestler himself, it's all about their ancestors.

Taha Akgul was born in a wrestling town

Akgul hails from Sivas in central Turkey, where he started wrestling when he was 12.

"This is an ideal age to start because younger children may not be able to accept defeat. Wrestling is a sport that also educates one." - Akgül told the Daily Sabah.

The Asian city's name derives from the Greek word sebastos (meaning venerable), which seems particularly fitting for a place that has now produced three wrestling Olympic champions.

Fellow Sivas native Ahmet Ayik won gold at Mexico 1968, while Hamza Yerlikaya took Olympic crowns at Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.

Akgül and his brother were encouraged into wrestling by their father Recep, who sent his sons to a boarding school focused on the sport, and gave them further training himself on the weekends.

Taha Akgul eventually broke into the international team, while his brother became a coach after reaching national standard.

The Akgul family's story bears an uncanny resemblance to that of the Phogat family in Bollywood biographic Dangal, in which Mahavir Phogat enthusiastically trained his daughters into becoming wrestling stars.

Growing into a gold medallist

Akgul won a place at university to study teaching, but bypassed the offer in order to become a full-time wrestler.

It wasn't long before he landed the 2012 European Championships 120 kg title, and would go on to win six of the next seven European titles at 125 kg.

"I wasn't as huge as I am now when I was younger," said Akgul to the Daily Sabah.

"I could have picked other sports like basketball or boxing if I knew I would be this huge. In the end, it was my father who picked the right sport for me and I am grateful for that."

His impact on the global stage was equally significant.

Akgul won the World Wrestling Championships in 2014 and 2015, meaning he was the favourite heading into the Rio 2016 Olympics.

He defeated Iran's reigning 120kg Olympic champion Komeil Ghasemi 3-1 in the 125 kg final, and Akgul's mission was complete.

He later resumed his college education and is now a physical education studies graduate.

An ancient, greasy tradition...

Despite football being Turkey's most popular game, oil wrestling is their national sport.

Wrestlers wear leather trousers, douse themselves in olive oil, and attempt to flip an opponent on to their back in an outdoor arena.

The sport traces its routes back to the early Ottoman Empire, leading Akgul to pin the country's success in wrestling today on the 'genetics of this country'.

In modern times Turkey boasts one of the oldest oil wrestling competitions in the world in Kirkpinar, where over 2,000 athletes compete.

It began in 1360 and holds the World Record for the longest-running athletic competition.

"People want to see me in Kırkpınar, thinking I am suitable for the competition because of my physique," Akgul told Daily Sabah.

"I want to compete there too but now my priority is my career on the mat. Competing in Kırkpınar may affect my freestyle performance."

The Kirkpinar oil-wrestling festival began in 1360.
The Kirkpinar oil-wrestling festival began in 1360.The Kirkpinar oil-wrestling festival began in 1360.

Geno Petriashvili rivalry and Akgul's lofty Olympic ambition

The man who put an end to Akgul's world domination was Geno Petriashvili.

The Georgian caused a shock at the 2017 World Wrestling Championships, edging his more experienced Turkish rival 10-8.

Petriashvili's emergence in the 125 kg division, where he has won the past three World Championships, means the pair now account for every world and Olympic title since 2014.

The pair battled to a thrilling 6-6 draw in the 2019 World Wrestling Championships final in Nur-Sultan, but victory went to the Georgian as the last athlete to score.

A re-match in the Tokyo 2020 final would be a fitting tribute to their rivalry.

"I want to do a (Olympic) hat trick," Akgul revealed to the Daily Sabah.

"If I get a good result in Tokyo, I'll work for the 2024 Olympics. I don't think I'll be too old then. Age does not matter as long as you are capable of wrestling."

Could Akgul be sliding towards higher honours in Japan? Things are certainly looking good for Turkey's top prospect, if he can come through this battle with injury.

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