How Ravi Kumar Dahiya wrestled his case to reach the Olympics
"There are Olympic medallists from my training centre. What have I done?"
Such was the modest reaction of Ravi Kumar Dahiya after he was hailed for delivering a bronze medal at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan and booking his spot for next year's Tokyo Olympics in the 57kg category.
So who exactly is the 22-year-old who announced his arrival on the global stage in such impressive fashion?
Seat of learning
Dahiya hails from Nahri, a village in the Sonipat district in Haryana, a state acclaimed for producing India's best grapplers, including Dutt, the Phogat sisters, and Bajrang Punia among several others. It's little wonder then that the wrestling bug bit him early in his life.
Since he was about 10 years old, he had been under the wings of Satpal Singh, who trained two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar.
At Chhatrasal, about 20 other wrestlers hail from his village alone and Dahiya currently lives in a room which was once occupied by Dutt, the London 2012 bronze winner.
So, despite his parents reservations about their eldest son going down the route of wrestling, Dahiya’s calling was loud and clear.
Farm to fame
While the passion burned bright, his financially humble background stretched his father, Rakesh Dahiya, to the limit. Unable to own land, he had to rent farms to work on them.
Dahiya Senior even used to cover nearly 40kms from his village to Delhi to deliver milk and fruits to his son for over a decade, the special diet adding a further financial burden.
Chhatrasal helped wherever they could, but when they had to house up to 20 children in a single room, that aid wasn't necessarily enough. But it did not prevent the progress of Dahiya through the ranks.
However, his father Rakesh still did not watch his son perform when he bagged the bronze at the Worlds. That's because he was hard at work at the time, toiling away in a field — like he had been doing all these years to ensure Ravi would never have to compromise on his goal.
You reap what you sow
Up against the Asian champion Reza Atrinagharchi of Iran for the bronze, the 22-year-old recorded a 6-3 win for a medal at his debut World Championships.
Dahiya also picked up silver at the Junior World Championships in 2015 and made heads turn in a franchise-based wrestling league in India.
During the Senior Nationals in 2017, he exacerbated a knee injury he had picked up during the Junior World Wrestling Championship semi-finals, putting him out for a year. But he bounced back from that setback remarkably.
In 2018, he bagged another silver at the U-23 World Championships at Bucharest in Romania and also finished second in the senior nationals. In 2019, he took part in his first senior Asian Championships and finished fifth in spite of an ankle injury.
Since then, it's been a steady rise for Dahiya in the 57kg category, as he beat the likes of senior wrestler Utkarsh Kale and Olympian Sandeep Tomar at the World Championships selection trials in July, which has now culminated in a bronze and the ticket to Tokyo 2020.
Unusually tall for a wrestler at 5'7" (170cm), he's blessed with a reach advantage over his rivals but that's not his only weapon. "His best skills are that he is very strong mentally, and physically, he has very good stamina and speed," coach Virender Kumar told ESPN.
The way forward
Dahiya's ultimate ambition is to emulate his hero Hassan Yazdani and capture Olympic gold.
His performances in Kazakhstan demonstrated that the Indian is now ready and able to mix it with the very best in his sport.
Another wrestling gem has been unearthed in Haryana, and Tokyo 2020 could well be his moment to shine.