New Delhi - In 2007, Ashwini Kumar, a farmer from the village of Dabarpur in Haryana's Sonepat district, faced a dilemma. The family story is that he'd just returned from a wedding where he'd met some pehelwans (wrestlers). Ashwini had never wrestled, nor had anyone in his family and neither did anyone in Dabarpur, but he was impressed enough by the wrestlers' demeanour and the honour accorded to them at the function that he decided one of his four children would become a wrestler as well. "His dream was that one of us would earn a great name for the family. Naam roshan karega (will bring honour to our family name)," says Sumit Kumar, the eldest of Ashwini's children.
However, that's where the problem began. With their rich diet and specialised, resource-heavy training, it's very expensive to raise a wrestler and Ashwini wasn't a wealthy man. "He could only choose one of us to support. So he made Sunil and me run a race in the fields," recalls Sumit. This wasn't an ordinary race on a smooth track. The mud in the fields had been ploughed over and flooded with water, so every step through the sticky stuff was harder to stomp through than the previous one. Such a course was a test not just of speed but also of stamina and willpower. It was in this obstacle course that Sunil, the youngest child, proved his worth.
"Even though Sunil was much younger than me, he beat me easily. Even when you compared how we ran in the mud, you could say he was the stronger one. That's how our father decided Sunil was going to become a wrestler," says Sumit.
Thirteen years after winning the race that would determine his career, Sunil Kumar, now 21, lived up to the responsibility entrusted upon him. At New Delhi's KD Jadhav Stadium on Tuesday, he won a gold medal in the 87kg Greco-Roman category at the Asian Wrestling Championships. In doing so, Sunil became the first Indian in 27 years to finish top of the podium in that wrestling format at the continental championships.
Sunil's journey from Dabarpur to the top of the podium at the Asian Championships wasn't without its share of obstacles. In order to pursue his wrestling career, he was enrolled at the Sports School in Nidani, Haryana, where he learned the fundamentals of wrestling. This wasn't an easy choice to make, considering the financial burden of his education at the private school. His family, however, supported him even in the toughest of times.
"In 2010, we lost our father in a road accident. It was very difficult for us. Sunil's school fees, room, board and diet in Nidani cost us some seven thousand rupees a month. That's very expensive for us, but we managed somehow. There are times when our mother would take loans just to pay for his expenses. We even leased out our farmland for money. We had a couple of buffaloes and the milk of one of them was kept just for Sunil," recalls Sumit.
The reason for this sacrifice was straightforward. "We had to fulfill our father's dream. Our mother would always remind Sunil of this. He had to stay focussed on his wrestling. He couldn't get into drinking or in bad company because of what our father wanted," says Sumit.
Sunil lived up to his end of the deal. He began his career as a freestyle wrestler but shifted to the Greco-Roman format (which differs from freestyle in that it only permits holds to be made from the waist up) in 2015. He found success soon after, winning a bronze at the 2016 Asian Junior Championships and then adding two more medals of the same colour at the 2017 and 2018 editions of the tournament.
At the 2019 edition -- his first year as a senior - he won a silver medal at the Asian Championships but the miss only whetted his appetite to go all the way in 2020.
At KD Jadhav Stadium, luck seemed to be in his corner. Sunil was in the easier half of the bracket, with 2019 World bronze medallist Rustam Assakalov of Uzbekistan and Iranian Behrooz Hedayat, the gold medallist at the prestigious Takhti Cup earlier this year, on the other side of the draw. His good fortune continued as Hedayat, who'd beaten Assakalov and was leading Kyrgyzstan's Azat Salidinov 7-0 in the semifinals, pulled out of the contest with a sprained ankle with just seven seconds left in the match.
Even in the most favourable of circumstances, however, Sunil's dream hung by the slenderest of threads. In the semifinals against Kazakhstan's Azamat Kustubayev, the 2018 Asian Games bronze medallist, the Indian was on the brink of defeat after two four-point throws left him 1-8 down at the end of the first period. With an eight-point margin being grounds to declare the end of a Greco Roman contest, a single point to the Kazakh would have meant the end of Sunil's campaign for gold.
That solitary point never came, though. The Indian's strength is his stamina and as the Kazakh's energy drained dramatically, Sunil stepped on the gas. "I was always confident that if Sunil made it through the first round, he would tire out his opponent. The Russian countries are famous for their technique. Sunil isn't so strong there, but his stamina is much superior to anyone else's," says national coach Hargobind Singh.
"My father was very important in me starting my career. I have got where I have only because of his blessings." Sunil Kumar
This wasn't empty talk. At the Asian Championships last year, against the same opponent, Sunil trailed 5-0 in the first round before coming back to pin the Kazakh. Indeed, before the Asian Championships, at a practice camp in Kazakhstan, Sunil was at the wrong end of a one-sided sparring bout against Kustubayev before his opponent tired out. "He probably had 20 points scored off him in the first round. But after the first round, Sunil dominated him," recalls coach Singh.
Sunil admitted as much later. "I wasn't worried about being so far back. I knew I could not lose one more point, but I backed myself to come back from there," he says.
The semifinal against Kustubayev was the only time Sunil was challenged in the tournament. In his final against Salidinov, he led from the start, shoving his opponent out of the ring thrice to cruise to a 5-0 win. The victory wrapped up, Sunil's coaches are already looking to the challenge ahead - the Asian Olympic qualifiers next month. They are confident he can scale that challenge, too.
"I'm very positive, he will be able to qualify for the Olympics. He's improved a lot since the last Asian Championships. He was a little weak in his defence because of which he will often give away points like in the semifinal against the Kazakhstan wrestler. But if he focuses simply in avoiding making mistakes like he did in the final, it will be very difficult to score against him," says coach Hargobind.
Sunil, too, is hopeful of making the Olympics. And should he get to the ultimate stage of his sport, he would only be fulfilling his father's wishes. "My father was very important in me starting my career. I have got where I have only because of his blessings," he says.