Greco-Roman wrestler Sunil Kumar has made it a point to maintain his daily routine of training twice a day for two and half hours at the only facility in his village Dabarpur in Haryana. He has been at it ever since he had to cut short his training stint in Azerbaijan to reach home following the coronavirus outbreak.

Kumar knows that no sporting activities, especially in contact events like wrestling, seem possible in the foreseeable future but the 22-year-old does not want to lose the momentum he had build since the start of the year.

The Indian Railways employee ended India’s 27-year wait for a gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling at the Asian Championship gold in February this year, bagged a silver medal in the Rome Ranking series in January and has reached a career-high ranking of 4 in the 87kg weight category, which would have made him the top seed in the now-postponed Asian Olympic qualifiers to earn a Tokyo Olympics spot.

Since the Asian championship, Kumar was training in Azerbaijan with the rest of the Indian contingent when they were asked to return to India on March 17. He wanted to make the Mehar Singh Akhada in Rohtak his base but with the lockdown imposed through the country, there was little choice but to get back home.

“We were to come back on March 22 and then go for the qualifiers. But we came back on March 17 and have been home. I can’t do sparring at this moment due to the lockdown. So I am focusing on building my upper body strength and keeping myself motivated.

“My family has told me to focus just on my wrestling while they are taking care of the household work and farms,” Kumar told over the phone soon after his evening training session.

Living his father’s dream

The unstinted support of the family has been Kumar’s biggest strength in the wrestling journey that started when he was just nine years old and his father enrolled him in a sports school 70km away from home to take up the sport.

“We didn’t have any wrestling background in the family or the village. But my father wanted someone to pick up the sport and that is how I started,” he said.

Even after his father’s death in a road accident in 2010, the family mortgaged their farm to support his wrestling career despite the initial lack of success.

But it was the shift from freestyle to Greco-Roman in 2015 that ultimately changed the fortunes for Kumar and he hasn’t looked back since then.

“My leg attack was not very good and I used to give away points that way. But my upper body strength was always good and so my coach suggested that I move to Greco Roman,” said Kumar, who soon broke into the Indian cadet and junior team.

He went on to win gold medals in the Asian U-23 championships in 2018 and 2019 before making a mark in the senior circuit by clinching the silver medal in the Asian championships in Xian, China, last year.

His talent was never in doubt but Kumar had the tendency of making tactical errors that cost him a medal in a few international meets and also in the 2019 World Championships against Joe Rau of USA.

But since then he has worked on his tactical game with national team coaches Hargobind Singh and Russian Temo Kasarashvili and also on his mental preparation with the sports psychologist provided by NGO Lakshya.

The hard work paid off for Kumar in the semi-finals of the Asian Championship when he fought back from a 1-8 deficit against Kazakhastan’s Azamat Kustubayev to reach his second consecutive summit clash.

“I had played him earlier and knew that he tends to get tired in the later part of the bout. So I ensured that I did not look at the score much to reduce the pressure on myself and went for the kill at the end,” he added.

Speaking of the technical changes he has made to the game, Kumar said the foreign coach had been working on his ground wrestling technique and that has given him a lot of confidence to take on the best in the world.

“Due to the focus on freestyle wrestling in India, most of us are good when we are standing but in Greco-Roman, ground wrestling is very important,” he added.

New challenge

Kumar is in constant touch with Kasarashvili over his training program but admits that it would be a challenge to hit the ground running immediately after the restart.

For starters, the coach had planned for the national camp to be held in Azerbaijan because there are not enough quality sparring partners in India. The sports ministry has given enough hints that foreign travel training stints could be severely restricted in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and that could pose a new challenge for Kumar and other Greco Roman wrestlers aiming to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

“It is true that we get quality sparring abroad. But I don’t want to think about what will happen if we can’t go abroad. The coach will take all these decisions,” said Kumar, who is aiming to become only the fourth Indian Greco-Roman wrestler after Mukesh Khatri (2004), Ravinder Singh and Hardeep Singh (2016) to qualify for the Olympics.

He admitted having doubts about whether the Games will actually happen given the uncertainty around how the world would recover from the coronavirus pandemic. But he also insisted that he finds motivation to keep working by thinking about the long term.

“We will have Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2022 and many more international events in the future,” he said. “I want to be ready for every competition.”