Nursultan: Before the start of their training session in Nursultan on Friday, the Indian women’s wrestling team is involved in a discussion with the coaches. It’s not about wrestling, well not entirely. The team members are contemplating whether they should order a cake to celebrate Sarita Mor’s birthday. But most of them insist that they won’t eat it even if a cake is ordered. In the end, it is decided that there will be no cake.

The refusal is understandable. With the wrestling World Championships beginning in the Kazakhstan capital city on Saturday, they are trying to shed the extra kilos off before the weigh-ins. A few slices of cake may just throw off their system.

Losing weight before a competition is one of the biggest worries, if not THE biggest for any wrestler. Just like the Indians, close to 1000 wrestlers will be weighing-in for the next 10 days at the World Championships.

The first are from the four Greco-Roman weight categories – 55 kg, 63 kg, 72 kg and 82 kg. The four events kick-off the tournament which will be followed by women’s wrestling and men’s freestyle.

Given India’s history of only one bronze medal in Greco-Roman weight categories at World Championships ever, expecting a medal on the opening day is a long shot. Therefore, the focus, given it’s an Olympic qualifying event, will be on two freestyle teams to earn a quota for Tokyo.

According to the qualification norms, any wrestler making it to the medal rounds would earn an Olympic quota.

Pre-tournament jitters

The counter down has made a few wrestlers nervous. Like Divya Kakran found out. For the past few days, her weight was stuck at 71 kg and she was unable to figure out why it was not dropping further despite her regular training.

“I was trying harder in every session,” Kakran said. “But nothing worked and I was worried. The coaches were worried. The problem is that it always plays on your mind even after training, when you are trying to sleep or just sitting.”

It could be the pre-tournament jitters. Kakran competes in the 68 kg category, an Olympics weight category, and needs to reduce the extra three kilograms in three days. It’s same for most others.

Mor is frustrated not because she was not able to celebrate her birthday but because she is in the process of weight-cutting.

“It’s irritating to be honest,” Mor said. “I may be in a good mood but you won’t realise it because I will have this look on my face which will be the opposite. I may snap at you for no reason only because we are irritated by the weight cutting process. It’s a light training session today [Friday] so it’s good.”

Indian women wrestlers relaxing after a game of handball -- Photo: Vinay Siwach

The evening session of the Indian team included a 40-minute game of handball, except it looks more like rugby. There were one-on-one battles between Sakshi Malik and Vinesh Phogat to snatch the ball. Mostly a third person was able to snatch the ball from them. Navjot Kaur was pacing up and down and scoring the most goals for her team.

It was also the most enjoyable part of wrestlers’ training session. The fierce look on the face that is seen during bouts was not there. They laughed when someone failed to score with just the goalkeeper to beat. The pre-tournament stress seemed to have vanished. There were no talks of opponents, medals or even the Olympic quotas.

“This is a happy bunch of players bonding like a team and ready to win some bouts,” Andrew Cook, the foreign coach with the team, said. “The camp has helped get used to the city and calm down the nerves.”

The team has been in Nursultan since August 28 and while it is a norm to reach the host city early, the 20-day long camp has its problems as well.

“When you are in a foreign city, it’s changes things. You are searching for Indian food, you sleep in hotel,” Kakran said. “It’s boring to be honest and you get bored of wrestling.”

Men focused on medals

A few kilometres away at the Nazarbayev University, the scene was completely opposite at the men’s freestyle camp. Deepak Punia and Mausam Khatri were involved in an intense sparring session while Ravi Dahiya was working on his techniques with a few foreign wrestlers.

The wrestlers do not shy away from talking about their medal prospects or even the Olympics. Punia, a junior world champion, knows it’s an opportunity that could make him an Olympian in his first try.

“There are a couple of wrestlers who are stronger than me,” Punia said. “Iran, Azerbaijan and Russia are strong and experienced but apart from than I can overcome most. If I can do some good ground techniques, a medal is a possibility.”

It won’t be easy in heavier weight categories – always a tough nut to crack for Indian wrestlers. He has an outside chance though after his wins at a few international tournaments.

Dahiya is more optimistic. The 57 kg wrestler, a former junior world championships silver medallist, banks on his fitness and stamina to win bouts.

“It’s perhaps the fittest I have been in my career. I am in good form as well,” he said. “57 kg category is all about how the body adapts to the weight reduction. I think I may overpower most of the others.”

Dahiya has some of the best moments of his career in last one year. He won a silver medal at the U23 World Championships, went unbeaten at the World Cup and Pro Wrestling League.

A fifth place finish at the Asian Championships was followed by medal at Medved International. But he knows Nursultan won’t be a cakewalk.

“I bank on my stamina and power to wrestle six minutes,” he said. “Technique may be weak but if I get to wrestle a full bout, I will most likely come out on top.”

Eyes on Bajrang, Sushil

It’s similar to what Bajrang Punia would say. India’s biggest medal hope at the Nursultan championships has been on roll for more than a year now. But he isn’t in Nursultan yet.

While the team trained at the host city, Bajrang Punia was preparing in Russia. Just like Sushil Kumar who is making a comeback to World Championships after eight years.

For Bajrang Punia, a medal here will not only assure an Olympic qualifying berth but also consolidate his ever-growing stature in world wrestling.

A day before the competition, United World Wrestling released a documentary on the Indian wrestler which became the talking point among the foreign wrestlers. Most are keen to understand how he wrestles at the same pace for six minutes.

But all that talk vanishes when they see the 74 kg list. A collective astonishment is seen when the list features Sushil Kumar on it.

The last time he was in Nursultan, Kumar had not won his silver medal in the London Olympics. In fact, he was in the Kazakhstan capital trying to qualify for the 2012 Games via the continental places. But he couldn’t achieve that goal after losing to Akzhurek Tanatarov of Kazakhstan. The 36-year-old is back in Nursultan seven years later trying for another Olympic berth. On the road to Tokyo Olympics, the wrestler will make his first pit stop at the World Championships.

This will also be his first attempt at 74 kg since moving up to the weight category in 2014. It will be a test for him but no one is ruling him out.

“Everyone remembers him” one of the Russian team coach said. “He may be old but he is a beast. Amazing style and character. Nobody knows if you say Sushil but everyone knows Kumar. There is only one Kumar.”