When Ravi Dahiya saw that he was drawn in the same half as the several World Championships and continental medallists from the past, he could not but think of his wish coming true. Sure, it was going to be tough, but that is exactly what he wanted.
“I don’t think anyone can match me in stamina. None of the opponents were easy but I am very confident,” he said. “It’s not just about qualification for Olympics alone, I think I can win a medal.”
Dahiya was not wrong about his chances. Not only did he become the first male wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, he capped off a memorable senior debut with a bronze medal against Reza Atri of Iran.
The 22-year-old had thought of this day since he began wrestling as a 10-year-old. Dahiya had impressed everyone by getting past European champion Arsen Harutyunan of Armenia, winning 18-6 and former world champion Yuki Takahashi to reach the last-four.
He did not win the semi-finals against Zaur Uguev, losing 4-6 but even in defeat, he made everyone take notice of him. The Russian ran out of breath in the final minute and found it difficult to match Dahiya’s pace.
“He did not wrestle for the last two minutes. His strategy was better,” he said. “I think I had him all the time. The four-point throw in the second period was my mistake.”
Throughout the day, Dahiya wrestled with the confidence and experience of a senior wrestler. No wrestler could match him for his pace on the mat and even against Uguev, there were glimpses of his brilliance.
The wrestlers in the Indian team are not surprised by Dahiya’s performance. After years of training at the Chhatarsal stadium, one of India’s top wrestling training centres, Dahiya has always been tipped for good results.
Out of the 10 freestyle wrestlers in the Indian team, six have trained at same stadium. All of them have seen him grow and win medals at various international tournaments.
“Ravi came to the stadium much before I did,” Deepak Punia said. “He will win the medal for sure. We were confident of the Olympic quota and now the medal as well. It inspires others when one of your friends wins a medal.”
There is no dearth of inspiration at Chhatarsal stadium in New Delhi. India’s two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is the biggest star to have come out of there. Bajrang Punia was there until 2014 and so was Yogeshwar Dutt.
Dutt is special for Dahiya. His room in the stadium was exactly where the Dutt, the former Olympic bronze medallist, had stayed many years ago. So Dahiya smiles every time he remembers that.
“My room was smaller when Dutt was around,” he said. “He won the bronze medal from training in Chhatarsal and it feels nice to stay in the same room. It was different back then. I just have my clothes there.”
Kumar is as big a role model for Dahiya as Dutt. “Sushil had won the Olympic medals when I came,” Dahiya said. “It is always good to have an inspiration and train under a good wrestler. It’s better that he is here and can see me win medals.”
Since his silver medal at the junior World Championships, Dahiya was expected to make the cut at the biggest stage. The medals and a tradition of wrestling that comes from his village Nahri in Sonipat made him one of the best in India among the younger crop.
Celebrated former wrestler Amit Dahiya also hails from Nahri. Amit had won a silver medal at World Championships in 2013, a year after becoming the youngest Indian to qualify for the Olympics.
“It’s like a tradition in the village,” Ravi Dahiya said. “Amit and so many others came to the stadium and now I am here with 30 other kids from my village. My brother is also there.”
Since joining the stadium in 2009, Dahiya has never been home for more than two days. There were no mobile phones so he had to call his parents from the coaches’ phones. Dahiya is passionate about the sport and doesn’t complain about it.
“I bought a phone in 2015,” he said. “Those times were different. And I never longed to go back home. I love wrestling and the only time I went home was during Diwali last year – reached home in the evening and came back the next day.”
He doesn’t think much about it. His father is a farmer and mother a housewife and Dahiya’s household always struggled for money. There were times when his father had to borrow from others to feed his family. But those financial woes didn’t affect Dahiya; he took solace in wrestling.
After his silver in 2015, Dahiya had some low results and also injured his knee. He won a bronze medal at the senior nationals in 2017 but had to sit out for most part of the 2018 because of another knee injury. But when he returned, he dominated his weight category in India.
At the 2018 U23 World Championships, he won the silver medal, won every bout at the World Cup, was undefeated in the Pro Wrestling League and booked his spot for the Asian Championships where he finished fifth after losing to Takahashi.
“Ravi may not be the best technique-wise but no one can wrestle him for six minutes without giving up points,” Arun, Dahiya’s training partner, said. “I have been with him since he began wrestling. The hard work he puts in is very different.”
Arun is with Dahiya in Kazakhstan to prepare him for the event. “He has been like that all his career. He will always be thinking about wrestling. He is soft spoken, does things on time and never says no to training hard. He has a big next year and hopefully he can continue for Tokyo.”
With Tokyo still 11 months away, Dahiya is focused on improving his skills and defence. “The whole process is a new thing,” he said. “I have to prepare. I didn’t win gold but the result there will be far more important. That is what I am focused on. But I have time. I will use it in the best possible way.”