Jitender Kumar may have won the selection trials that will give him an opportunity to compete at the season opener of the international wrestling calendar as well as the Asian Championships next month, but the shadow of Sushil Kumar still looms large over his Olympic prospects.
The 24-year-old was competing on Friday in the 74kg category, for which no Indian has yet qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. For every other category in which no Indians had won Olympic quotas, the trials in New Delhi's Indira Gandhi stadium were to determine participants for the Ranking Series event in Rome (January 15-18), the Asian Championships (February 18-23) and the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Xian (March 27-29). However, not long after two-time Olympic medallist and 74kg-category contender Sushil had pulled out of the trials citing a hand injury, the president of the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) had clarified that the winner of the 74kg would have to impress with medal-winning performances in Italy and at the Asian Championships before getting a chance to take part in the Olympic qualifiers.
Regardless of the caveat, Jitender was simply glad for the chance to cement his claim as India's premier wrestler in the 74kg division. It's been tough going for him to get an opportunity in one of the most competitive weight classes in Indian men's freestyle wrestling. More often than not, Jitender has had to take part in the 79kg weight class simply to get the chance to participate in international wrestling. That hasn't always worked out for him. "The 79kg category is too heavy for him. His natural bodyweight is about 76kg. So It's best for him to take part in the 74kg category," says coach Virdev Singh.
But it can also be argued that Jitender hasn't grabbed opportunities when they have come his way. While he has a couple of gold medals at the Commonwealth Championships, he has yet to medal at a high-level competition in the four years he has competed in the senior category. And while he's competed in two selection trials over the last couple of years - he's lost to Sushil Kumar (2018 Commonwealth Games trials and 2019 trials for the World Championships) on both occasions.
But Jitender hopes things will be different this year. He's currently training under Shako Bentinidis, the coach who has guided 65kg freestyle wrestler Bajrang Punia to two World Championships medals over the last two years. "I think Jitender has a lot of potential. But he needs to get more experience and wrestle more high-level matches," Bentinidis says.
Jitender earned the chance to do just that with his performance on Friday. Even in the absence of Sushil, the competition in the 74kg category was expected to be fierce with most eyes trained on 18-year-old Gaurav Baliyan, who became the youngest to win a gold medal over the last couple of decades at the Senior National Championships, and Parveen Rana, a two time medalist at the Asian Championships. Baliyan lost to the veteran Amit Dhankar 7-6, while Rana lost to Vinod Kumar 4-2. It was Jitender who then beat both Vinod 6-1 in the semifinals and then Dhankar 5-2 in the final to book his tickets for the first two competitions of the year.
While he's eager to prove his worth, Jitender says he's ready to compete in another trials should that be what he has to do. "The more I wrestle internationally, the better I'll get. But if I have to wrestle against Sushil, I'll do that as well," he says.