Veteran wrestler Sushil Kumar says it was a mistake to head into big tournaments without enough "mat-time" and he will now compete more regularly to revive his sagging career. In a seven-year period, between the 2012 London Olympics and the 2019 World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Sushil competed in only seven tournaments. While he won gold medals at the 2014 and the 2018 editions of the Commonwealth Games, he struggled at the Jakarta Asian Games leading to questions on whether he was good enough to go any further at 36. He recently started to train with Russian coach Kamal Malikov in a bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics through the World Championships. He did fight better than the Jakarta Games but nonetheless exited after a first-round defeat in the 74kg category.
"I lost but I felt good on the mat. I was faster than Jakarta. I was at this Championship just to announce to the world that I am getting back. And even the foreign coaches around said, 'you look like getting back'," Sushil told PTI in an interview. He did show glimpses of the raw talent that made him an Olympic legend, the only one from India with two individual medals, when he twice troubled Azerbaijan's Khadzhimurad Gadhiyev with four-point throws.
"I lack in stamina and defence as of now. My coach Malikov had said he wants 90 day-training to put me back in shape. It's about 50 days as of now. I had put on weight and I had slowed down too. But today, I have lost weight, I have become faster. The body is in competition mode. My coach says I am better from what I was two years ago," he said. Where did he vanish in between? "I thought, I should play only bigger tournaments but the coach (Malikov) said no, I have to be in competition every month or in every 45 days to have enough mat-time," he explained.
But why was he not competing often all these years? "Honestly, I did not feel like competing but people who are close to me said, even If I have 10-20 per cent of wrestling left in me, I should not quit. So I decided to train and qualify for the Olympics. I will try to qualify from the Asian event next year," he said. Talking about Malikov, Sushil said, he is younger than him and that's why he doubles up as his sparring partner as well. "He is technically, a very sound coach. Every aspect was looked into before finalising the contract with him. He is respected in Russia," he said.
Sushil said while the years of experience behind him make him technically sound, his training methods have changed as he is not young anymore. "As you age, you have to change. I can't put myself to rigours after a certain age. You can't break your body. I still love wrestling, so still here," he said. "I am doing everything but not going the whole hog. I have to do everything. I have to run, I have to be on the mat, in the gym, do some power training. The coach makes my schedule. And when it's competition, it's different training," he said.
With two Olympic medals and one world title, Sushil has nothing to prove then why is he pushing himself for another Olympics? "I still love wrestling. I have the support of my family and my Guru Mahabali Satpal ji. He says, 'even if you have a 10 per cent of wrestling left in you, you must not leave the mat'." But is it easy to swallow defeats since his reputation is at stake too? "In 2009 I was close to World Championship title. In 2003 I missed it by a very close margin. The world champions lose and the Olympic champions also lose," he pointed out. "I lost in Belarus and at the World Championship but I am analysing. I have learnt to digest defeats. If I win I don't become arrogant and If I lose, I don't lose heart."
Sushil returned to the World Championships after eight years and found that a lot has changed in the Indian wrestling. "There are a lot of people helping our boys. It was not the case before.Tata Motors, the WFI, JSW, OGQ, they all are doing their bit. If you will compare the India team and the USA team, you notice we too have a very good support staff. We have personal foreign coaches attached with the wrestlers. There are physios, doctors travelling with the team all the time. This is a big change in last 8 years and it only good for the sport," he said.