UTTAR PRADESH: Twenty-eight years back, Lal Kumar left Amritsar to make Varanasi his home. Kumar was a 1985 National Games bronze medalist judoka and a certified coach from the National Institute of Sports-Patiala. His departure from the city of Golden Temple happened after the death of his younger brother when terrorism was at its peak in Punjab.
Along with Lal Kumar were his parents and wife. The family depended on the Rs 5,000 monthly pension of his father. Kumar, then 30, decided to start his judo coaching career in 1993. “The then Varanasi Regional Sports Officer and ex-international hockey player NP Singh was impressed by perseverance for the martial art sport and offered me an ad hoc job of coach for Rs 300 monthly,” recalls Lal.
Not many people in the ‘holy city’ knew judo as a sport. “I cycled from one village to another to scout for my first pupils. Finally, I found a budding wrestler German Yadav in Bhatti village, which was famous for its wrestling talent,” says Kumar. A couple of years of coaching helped Yadav win the gold in junior national judo championship, which inspired his younger brother Ram Asre to leave wrestling and take to the judo mat at the Badminton Hall of the Sampoornand Sports Stadium in Varanasi.
Subsequently, not only the Bhatti village but adjoining Akelwa and Kaparfodwa villages too started producing champion judokas. Ram Asre, who is currently employed with the UP Police, was Lal Kumar’s first student who entered the international arena by winning the gold in the 2008 Commonwealth Judo Championship, besides silver medals in Asian Judo and World Railway Games.
While Lal Kumar’s disciples continued their winning streak in national and international judo arena, their coach’s monthly remuneration in 1998 increased from Rs 300 to just Rs 1,200. In 2002, his remuneration was raised to Rs 7,000. “For me to run the family as well as fund the basic needs of my students was a huge task. But contributions by benevolent people, including IAS officer Nitin Ramesh Gokarna and even Japan’s five-time world judo champion Yasuhiro Yamashita (who sent the entire judo gear in 2010) ensured that my passion to produce more champion judokas never died,” says Kumar, now aged 58.
Kumar now has over 50 students who have won over 100 national and international medals. Not only have 20-plus judokas trained by Kumar won the podium finishes in the national and international championships, but also fetched government jobs in the Railways, UP Police, Central Military Police, CRPF and CISF. The ‘guru,’ however, runs his family with savings as well as money borrowed from friends owing to the Covid lockdown which has halted his coaching since March last year. “It was the Akhilesh Yadav government five years back, which raised our monthly remuneration to `25,000, but since last year’s lockdown, there has been no job for me,” says Kumar.
“My daughters shelved their dreams of becoming doctors or engineers due to lack of monet. My son had to do Bachelors in Physical Education and like me, he too is jobless now.” Despite being jobless for a year, Kumar is now focusing on shaping visually challenged students from Banaras Hindu University into champions. “He has never let his pain and problems hinder his commitment in the 25 years. Now, we’ll work with him to produce champions among the differently abled youngsters,” said international athlete Neelu Mishra, also vice president of Varanasi District Olympic Association.