“Greco, kya? (what?)”
That was Sunil Kumar’s immediate reaction when his coach first told him about participating in a ‘different’ format of wrestling to fulfill his Olympic dream.
Six years later, the Dabarpur-born grappler defeated Kyrgyzstan’s Azat Salidinov in the men’s 87kg final of the Asian Championship. He not only aced the format, he ended India’s 27-year-old gold medal drought in Greco-Roman wrestling.
The victory has propelled Sunil Kumar to world no. 4 in the United World Wrestling (UWW) rankings, a feat that comes in good time with the Asian Wrestling Olympic qualifiers to be held from March 27-29 in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. With world no. 3, Uzbekistan’s Rustam Assakalov having secured his berth in Tokyo 2020, Sunil Kumar will head in to the qualification tournament as the no. 1 seed.
“I’ve really worked hard on my confidence this year. I’ve been working with a psychologist on my ability to come back in matches, that’s what’s keeping me confident for the 2020 Olympic qualifiers as well,” Sunil Kumar told the Olympic Channel.
Last year, Sunil Kumar had fallen agonisingly short of the gold medal after losing to Iran’s Hossein Nouri in the final.
Chasing the wrestling dream
Hailing from a small town in eastern Haryana’s Sonepat district, Sunil Kumar was introduced to wrestling because of his father’s indomitable patriotic spirit.
“Although we were not that well off, my father always believed that he needed to contribute something towards the betterment of India. One day, he came and told us about taking up wrestling as a hobby, but our town didn’t have a training center like other districts in Sonepat, so he admitted me to a sports school,” he shared.
After closely monitoring the physical prowess of his four children, Ashwini Kumar decided to admit only Sunil to a sports school in Nidari, a town 70 km away from home. “It wasn’t cheap, I needed to have a lot of milk and food as well. He didn’t ask me to do anything else but focus on becoming a better wrestler and also improve my technique,” Sunil Kumar recalled.
However, disaster struck the Kumar family in 2010 after Sunil’s father passed away in a road accident. The event made Sunil question his choice of wrestling as a career.
“I stopped practice for a while in school as well, but my mother (Anita Kumar) and elder brother (Sumit Kumar) wanted me to pursue not only mine but my father’s dream as well. I wasn’t that good at the time, I lost a lot of matches in school and at the sub-junior level, but they somehow managed the costs for school and my diet,” he reflects.
By ‘managed’, Kumar means that to make anywhere between Rs 7,000 to Rs 12,000 every month, his family would lease their farmland to locals and his mother would take four loans as the young wrestler’s career trudged along without immediate success. In late 2014, a swift decision by Sunil’s coach and himself changed the heavyweight’s fortunes forever.
Meteoric rise in Indian wrestling
Like every other young Indian grappler, Sunil Kumar was first introduced to freestyle wrestling in Nidani. Due to his admittedly mediocre ground movement, he didn’t attain much success in the fledgling stage of his career.
The ‘dangals’ i.e. bouts he participated in during his sub-junior days didn’t have the Greco-Roman format, hence in the first two years of his amateur wrestling career, Sunil Kumar was clueless about its existence. It was during his stint at the Mehar Singh Akhada in Rohtak, Haryana, that he was first introduced to Greco-Roman wrestling.
“One of my friends managed to win gold at a national tournament in a lower weight category in our akhada (ground). I went and asked my coach which category he won it in… and I decided to try it out,” he said.
Within six months of that, Sunil Kumar went on to win gold in the sub-junior nationals in 2015. The following year, he was the number one junior in his weight category, winning the National Championship in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh. The format almost felt tailormade for Kumar.
In late 2016, Sunil Kumar won a bronze at the Asian Junior Wrestling Championship in Manila, Philippines to signal the revival of Greco-Roman wrestling in India. He would go on to add two more Asian Junior bronze medals in successive years before finally transitioning to the senior category in late 2018.
The rise in the Indian wrestling hierarchy, was meteoric - Sunil Kumar won both the Junior and Senior National Championship within just a year. At just 21 years of age, his achievement of becoming sub-junior, junior, national and continental champion in his weight category is terrific news bodes well not just for his 2020 Olympics plans, but also for future editions of the Games.
“I’m grateful to the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) and Lakshya Sports for having faith in me and Greco-Roman wrestling. At 8-1 in the semis, I would’ve given up, but it was actually the psychologist who helped me deal with my ‘hyper’ nature,” he shared.
Trailing 8-1 in the semi-finals against arch-rival and 2018 Asian Games bronze medalist Azamat Kustubayev of Kazakhstan, Sunil Kumar was just a few moves away from a heartbreaking loss. The Kazakh needed only one point to win the match as a point differential of 8 is enough to secure victory in Greco-Roman. However, this is where his psychologist’s advice kicked in.
“Previously, I would’ve looked at the scoreboard at the round break. This time, my psychologist told me not to look at the scoreboard during the entire match. So I wasn’t even calculating, my eyes were only at the opponent. To be honest, I didn’t even know it was 8-1, I just focused on my own moves,” he added.
In a stunning comeback, Sunil Kumar registered 11 consecutive points to seal the match 12-8 and secure his spot in the finals. Incidentally, he overtook Azamat in the recent UWW rankings, jumping a massive 12 spots thanks to his Asian Championship victory.
2020 Olympics Qualifier preparations
Now the attention moves to Bishkek, with Sunil Kumar being India’s front-runner to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Under the guidance of national Greco-Roman coach Harigobind Singh and foreign Head Coach Temo Kasarashvili, he has attended international camps in countries such as Kazakhstan, where a substantial number of his continental rivals practice.
Sunil Kumar will attempt to become only the fourth Indian Greco-Roman wrestler after Mukesh Khatri (2004), Ravinder Khatri (2016) and Hardeep Singh (2016) to qualify for an Olympic edition in the last two decades. In 1993, it was Pappu Yadav who won India an Asian Championship gold medal in the 48 kg category. Since then, Indian Greco-Roman wrestling has seen a relative downfall, compared to its more successful peer, freestyle.
However, on February 23, 2020, Yadav was one of the first people at the KD Jadhav stadium to go and hug Sunil Kumar. The delight was not just a case of temporary joy, but one of relief, fulfillment, and hope that Indian Greco-Roman wrestling has finally announced itself on the world stage.