Deepak Punia had only one bout to wrestle at the selection trials for the World Championships. He knew that a win could give him a shot at qualifying for the Olympics next year. There was no lack of motivation when he took on Pawan Saroha in the 86 kg category final and won it 5-1, booking his ticket to Kazakshtan.
But Punia, who has won several international medals for India, was nervous because of someone’s presence inside the KD Jadhav indoor stadium. Satpal, a wrestler-turned-coach at the Chhatarsaal stadium, was present at the trials and Punia did not want to disappoint his coach.
In the years gone by, Satpal has moulded wrestlers including Olympic medallists Sushil Kumarm and Yogeshwar Dutt along with former World Championships silver medallist Amit Dahiya. Now, a new crop of wrestlers from the same stadium is keeping the tradition going.
When Punia won, he rushed to Satpal to take his blessings. So did Ravi Dahiya and Sumit Malik. All three are trainees at the stadium and have made it to the World Championships team. In fact, barring Mausam Khatri who trains in Sonipat, the other four wrestlers who were selected on Friday have all cut their teeth at Chhatarsaal. Apart from the three aforementioned wrestlers, Bajrang Punia, who won the 65 kg category, began his career and trained there until 2014.
Even the wrestlers who lost to Dahiya at the trials – Rahul and Naveen – are his academy-mates. In fact, all of them stay together at the stadium and have been mates for a long time. While Dahiya is upset that not all of them made the cut, he is happy that his stadium produced most of the wrestlers who will be competing in Nur-Sultan.
“It is the best school we have in India,” Dahiya said. “We have been together and began at the same time. Naveen is such a close friend and is my sparring partner. We have competed against each other for a long time. He used to win and now I win.”
Though Deepak Punia is in a higher weight class, he spends most of his time with Dahiya.
“We travel outside now with the senior team so we stay together. Sumit is also there with the team but he is senior to us. We interact but Ravi and I are always together and it helps a lot to have a friend with you,” Punia said.
Both share the same room with two other wrestlers. From training to competition, they exchange notes and even idolise the same wrestler.
“I love [Iran’s Olympic champion] Hasan Yazdani and the way he wrestles. I watch a lot of videos of him. I will ask about him from the foreign coach, who is in the national camp for India,” Dahiya added.
Deepak Punia too is a fan of Yazdani, who won the gold medal in 74 kg at the Rio Olympics. He has now moved up to 86 kg and there is a possibility Punia can run into him at the World Championships.
Both Punia and Dahiya arrived at Chhatarsaal around the same time. The former was inducted in 2015, two years after his friend. Sushil was the common reason for both young wrestlers to join the stadium and it continues to be the same.
“Sushil was already a big name when we came. I always admired him and it was great to train in the same hall as he did. As kids, we were just happy to watch him train. Now we want to win medals like him,” Dahiya explained.
The 21-year-old is steadily following in those footsteps. He won his first big medal at the junior world championships in 2015, where he took silver. A knee-injury did hamper Dahiya’s progress but since his comeback in 2018, he has a string of good results under his belt.
In October last year, he ended up winning the silver at the U23 World Championships, went unbeaten at the Club World Cup and won the silver medal at the senior Nationals. He began this season with an unbeaten run at the Pro Wrestling League, finished fifth in his first senior Asian Championships but is now focussed on qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics.
“I twisted my ankle at the Asian Championships so that was a bad result.” Dahiya said. “At the Yasar Dogu tournament this month, I wanted to compete at 61 kg but that did not happen. So now I am focussed on winning a medal at Worlds. I think we both of us can win medals there – that will be huge.”
There is a chance that both of them may stand on the podium at the World Championships. Punia has gone from strength to strength since winning gold medal at the cadet world championships in 2016. He won silver and bronze medals at the recent United World Wrestling ranking tournaments, which has propelled him to number five in the world. At the age-group level, he won a silver at the junior world championships last year and will represent India at the same event next month before joining the seniors.
“I have experience at the senior [level]. That always helps when you go to international competition. I’ll stop competing in junior events from now and focus will only be on senior level. We want to win medals for India,” he says.
Malik too has been at Chhatarsaal since early years. He reached the semi-final of last year’s World Championships. If he does that this year, he will be an Olympian.
With the selection trials of five more weight categories (61 kg, 70 kg, 74 kg, 79 kg, 92 kg) still to go, there is a chance that more than half of the team will be represented by one stadium, just like it has been in the country for close to two decades.
“We can win medals everywhere but we need to win in Kazakhstan and later at Olympics. That’s what matters. That’s what matters at Chhatarsaal,” Punia signed off.