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Son of the soil, made from steel
The Olympics is over 112 years old now and over this long span of time India have had only 13 individual medallists. Only two out of this small list of 13 have ever won two individual Olympic medals - the first was Norman Pritchard way back in 1900 and the second is Sushil Kumar, in 2012.
KD Jadhav was the first Indian wrestler to win a medal in 1952 and it took another 56 years for a Sushil to come and snatch a bronze in the repechage at Beijing Olympics. In London, earlier this year, Sushil went one better and clinched silver in the 66kg category to etch his name in Indian sporting history.
In 2008, Sushil was a nobody. The country didn't know who this assuming lad, hailing from a small village called Baprola in south-west Delhi, was. The minute he came back from Beijing, the 25-year-old became a superstar.
It couldn't have been easy to carry hopes of billions to London. All eyes were on Sushil to repeat his heroics and anything less than a medal would have been a shocker. Medal hopefuls Deepika Kumari (archery) and Vijender Singh (boxing) - the best in the business in their respective fields - must have felt the same pressure. But what separated them from Sushil in London was the latter's ability and tenacity to handle that pressure.
Both Deepika and Vijender wilted in the media glare whereas Sushil channelled that energy to reach a greater high. While the medal in Beijing came via repechage after Sushil had lost his very first bout, the 29-year-old decimated everyone in his path on way to the final in London. He ran into Japanese strongman Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu and settled for silver.
Five months on, it all seems like a dream to everyone, including Sushil. "Sometimes when I am relaxing and thinking about London, it all feels like a dream to me. Winning one medal is amazing, a second one still seems unreal, " says Sushil.
"Everyone thought that a medal was a foregone conclusion. It's not easy living up to these expectations. The last four years of my life have been spent working towards one goal - another Olympic medal, " he adds.
Sushil's Beijing medal gave a massive boost to the sport of wrestling in the country. India went from strength-to-strength and the grapplers grabbed their biggest medal haul at the 2010 Delhi Games. "Sushil performance in Beijing was an inspiration for every wrestler in India. He proved that India belongs on the world stage, " Sushil's mentor Satpal says.
After Beijing, the year 2010 definitely was the highpoint for the Baprola boy as he held the Asian, World and Commonwealth titles simultaneously. The most special among the lot was definitely the CWG gold earned in front of a packed Delhi crowd in a stadium aptly named in the memory of 'Pocket Dynamo' KD Jadhav.
"I don't think I have changed as a person. I am still reserved but a lot of recognition has come after my Olympic medal. I think more important than the recognition I have got, it is great news for the sport of wrestling, " Sushil says about life after Beijing.
Years of toil have gone into preparation of this champion. The last 18 years of Sushil's life have been spent shuttling between Chattrasal stadium and SAI-NIS Patiala. Day begins at 4 in the morning and features 8 to 10 hours of training every day.
The grappler credits his father Diwan Singh for supporting him throughout his career. "I still remember Sushil walking in with his father Diwan for the first time. He weighed just about 26 to 28 kgs but performed wonderfully in my trials. In fact, I couldn't stop myself from saying that this boy will go on to be a world champion, " Satpal said.
"He's a strict vegetarian, so a lot of his diet includes fresh vegetables with plenty of ghee - which his mother usually provides. He also drinks about four litres of milk every day, " he added.
The government on its part has spent close to Rs 10 crore on the training of the wrestlers at the national camps and on giving them international exposure in places like Tashkent, Melbourne, Turkey and Colorado Springs. Sushil also gives credit to the government for its support in the lead-up to the London Games, especially the international exposure that the wrestlers got in the p[ast two years. "We got a lot more exposure before London as compared to Beijing. We went to Colorado Springs, where training at a high-altitude facility was an added advantage. Some of the top wrestlers in the world were there this time around. It was great to train with them as well as the best coaches in the world, " Sushil, who was also India's flag-bearer in London, says.
London brought its share of accolades. Delhi and Haryana government opened their purses awarding him Rs 2 crore and Rs 1. 5 crore respectively. The Haryana government has also promised him land in Sonepat to build his own wrestling academy.
Sushil these days is still as busy training as he has been all these years. He is back at the Chattrasal stadium going through the usual grind. There have been some public appearance in between but the focus is still on bringing more honour for the country. "2013 is another big year for me. We have the World Championships in Hungary while the Asian Championships will take place in Delhi. Both are very big tournaments and preparations are in full swing, " he says.
When asked if he would have taken a silver medal at the beginning of this year, he says: "There is no bigger stage for an athlete than the Olympics. Everyone wants to win gold but yes, if someone had told me at the beginning of the year that I would have to settle for silver, I would have taken the offer with both hands. "
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