KOCHI: Basking in glory after qualifying for Rio, Hardeep Singh has been kept busy by people of Dahola, his village in Haryana. The Greco-Roman wrestler has got so many receptions after returning from Kazakhstan that he hardly has time to answer calls. Even if you manage to catch him over phone, the 25-year-old says the conversation has to be short. “Bas do minute (just two minutes).”
Hardeep is guarded in his ways, just like he is on the mat. Reticence is part of his personality, observed coach Kuldeep Singh, who has worked with him for six years. When he started, he was into freestyle, which is higher on ‘glam quotient’ than the less fancied Greco-Roman. “I played kabaddi. It was the most popular sport in my village. When I was introduced to wrestling, I took up freestyle. During the 2009 national junior championship, I was shifted to ‘roman’ and won gold. After that, it’s been Greco-Roman for me,” said Hardeep on Tuesday.
But Kuldeep, who is also chief coach of the national team, says it was on his persistence that Hardeep switched. “When he came to us, he had no idea of Greco-Roman. What he had seen and played was all freestyle. It took several sessions of brainstorming to change his mind. In India, talented wrestlers opt for freestyle. We don’t get enough good hands.”
Though the initiation was by force, Hardeep soon started making waves. From 2014, he has been the national champion and as results of the qualifying event shows, he is India’s best bet in 98kg.
With Hardeep becoming the first Indian to earn an Olympic Greco-Roman berth after Mukesh Khatri in 2004, Kuldeep feels he stands vindicated. “I don’t know whether people outside wrestling can understand the gravity of the achievement. Nevertheless, we know how difficult it would be in the Olympics. But we have time to prepare and he should be in good stead.”
On Olympics, Hardeep was evasive. “Dekha jayega (we’ll see).” As an afterthought, he adds, “We’ll use the facilities and work for a better outing in Rio.”
Asked if he is satisfied by facilities in India and his national camp in Sonepat, he sounded content. Right then, noise around him increased. “Teen minute ho gaye (it’s been three minutes),” the voice became restless.