About two hours before women’s medal matches at the Asian Wrestling Championships, Divya Kakran was sitting in the spectators’ arena at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. Two women, who looked like close relatives, were by her side. Having just reached the final in 56 kg category, the 17-year-old did not look like someone about to wrestle in a gold-medal match. Sporting a cool pair of shades, she was posing for snaps, probably to change her display picture, in one of the many social networking sites.
Outside the arena, Sakshi Malik, the star attraction, who had also qualified for the final, was spotted sharing a hearty laugh with a lady who looked like a friend. This calm attitude of India’s wrestlers speaks a lot about the state of the sport and the country’s future. After all, to not get the situation the better of you is one of the primary traits defining a champion.
These are changing times for Indian wrestling. The Asian championship is the first international event where familiar faces are missing. For a start, the future looks bright. A haul of seven medals in the first three days confirms that. Former national coach Vinod Kumar praised the dedication of the new lot. “These kids are very involved. They’ve been training hard. Right now, there’s more focus on them. I feel they’ll get better. They know what seniors have achieved. That’s a lot to draw inspiration from,” he said.
Fifty-six years. That’s how long it took India to win a second Olympic medal in wrestling, after KD Jadhav. If that feat in Helsinki in 1952 was an aberration, the one in 2008 started a trend. Sushil Kumar’s bronze in Beijing shifted the focus to wrestling and in London 2012, Sushil’s silver with Yogeshwar Dutt’s bronze meant Indians had arrived on the big stage. World Championship medals in between bore further testimony to this. Improved facilities with greater economical support and government’s attention played a major role.
“I think this generation will achieve great heights. Not because we are more talented, but the facilities and infrastructure are much better. Also, there are lots of competitive and practice tournaments that help us analyse and perform better. Sakshi’s medal at the Olympics has changed the way people look at things,” said Ritu Phogat, from the famous family of wrestlers.
“After Rio, more and more girls are also showing interest in wrestling. We have an akhada back home. There too, lots of girls are showing up everyday. With the release of the film Dangal, the sport has become more popular. I feel women’s wrestling in particular will go up in the coming years,” said Geeta, another of the Phogat sisters, a World Championship medallist herself.
After success in the previous years, 2016 was a bad one for Indian wrestling, because of the selection fight between Sushil and Narsingh Yadav and the latter’s subsequent failure in a dope test. While this forced the 2015 World Championship bronze winner to head home from Rio, Sakshi Malik lifted Indian spirits. Her fightback from 0-5 down in the bronze bout gave India the first of its two medals in Brazil.
“Our previous batch was exceptional. As everybody knows, there were controversies before Rio. But it’s over now and there is no such thing in the new set. In freestyle, Bajrang Punia is our main hope. He will replace Yogeshwar. I think Narsingh has more to offer after the legal complications are sorted out. If that doesn’t happen, Jitendra can fill in for him. But watch out for Divya. She has great potential. And obviously there is Vinesh. In 2020, we will have great returns. Our girls, especially, are doing very well,” said Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, president of Wrestling Federation of India.
Brave, new bunch
Remember The Powerpuff Girls? The 90s cartoon series featuring Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup? To create the perfect little girl, Professor Utonium used a mixture of sugar, spice and everything nice. Along with that, he accidentally spilled a mysterious substance called ‘Chemical X’ that gave the girls super powers including strength, speed and many more. Blossom was the tactical one, Buttercup the strongest and Bubbles as we all know was the cute little one with a kind heart. These three elements — tactics, strength and a kind heart — stand out as far as women’s wrestling in Indian is concerned, according to national coach Kuldeep Malik.
“There isn’t much difference between the current and previous batch. Style and rules have changed, but the basics and techniques remain the same. I have lots of expectations from Vinesh and Ritu. After Sakshi, these are girls are in focus. In Rio, we got one medal. The aim is to bag all three in Tokyo. To help them get better, we impart psychological training as well. We believe in the hard work we are putting in,” said Malik.
He and other coaches feel the men’s team is equally talented, but right now, women wrestlers are more popular. Even at the Asian meet, a lot of little girls with their mothers were among the crowd. Speaking to them revealed that they wanted to catch a glimpse of Sakshi or Vinesh. It’s a new dawn for Indian wrestling. For a change, the ladies are leading the line.