As the bright red band bearing the bronze disc settled around Chandrakant Mali’s neck in Glasgow, a 55-year-old man seated in his village thousands of miles away in Maharashtra felt the tug of vindication. Pradeep Patil, owner of Hercules Gym in Kurundwad, had produced his third weightlifting medallist at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
With Mali clinching the bronze in the 94 kg category, Patil saw all three of his gym’s trainees stand atop the lowest step of the podium in Scotland. Ganesh Mali kicked off the celebrations in Kurundwad with a bronze in the 56 kg category, while Omkar Otari’s third-place finish in the 69 kg category gave the village more reason to keep the party going. However, Patil claimed he would only be satisfied when Ganesh’s cousin, Chandrakant, completed the set. And when that happened on Tuesday night, Kurundwad prepared its streets for a grand welcome.
Life, though, was not always rosy for the three boys and their coach. Kurundwad, located 55 km from Kolhapur in west Maharashtra, is not exactly a weightlifting hub. Patil’s gym does not have proper equipment, with almost 45 weightlifters practicing on one single barbell purchased six years ago. The flooring is rough, stray pieces of plywood have been glued together to create some sort of platform for the lifters to practice and the power is erratic. But the coach’s resolve made up for all of that and kept the boys going.
“What we are today, we owe everything to sir (Patil),” says Otari. “He was the one who got us started, treated us like his own children and taught us how to lift like pros.” These pros from an obscure village gym have managed to bag a little over a fourth of all Indian lifting medals at the Games — 3 out of 11.
Today, thanks to the medals, a beeline of aspiring lifters can be seen waiting outside Hercules. “Sir has never taken a single rupee from a weightlifter. I think weightlifting is something very close to his heart and all of us, whenever we have won medals, always dedicate our victories to him,” Otari says.
Patil himself is far too modest to take that praise seriously. “I was pretty bad at weightlifting during my amateur days to be honest. I used to participate in local competitions when I was in college. However, I never did manage to finish in the top three,” says Patil. “But the love for the sport stayed strong even after college, so I opened a small gym just to be in touch with the sport. And when the boys soon began to get noticed at state meets, we decided to take this seriously.”
Patil faced several problems, the biggest of which was procuring international standard weightlifting equipment and getting it transported to Kurundwad. “I tried my best to raise funds for professional weightlifting sets but we only managed to get one,” says Patil, who works as a dealer in drip irrigation systems during his day job. But lack of equipment was never going to stop this determined man.
“No equipment, no problem. We fashioned a number of barbells and weights on lathe machines here in the village itself. That equipment works just fine and the boys always have access to better facilities when they start performing,” he adds.
Otari and Chandrakant Mali started weightlifting in 2003, while Ganesh Mali joined the gym in 2008. When the two began, Otari says they could not even drop the weights on the floor. “There was no wood nor the typical cork flooring for weightlifting. We had to catch how much ever weight we lifted. It was quite challenging but I think all those unique drills have helped us as we have progressed through the sport,” he says.
Today, Otari is a clerk in Western Railways while the Mali brothers are in the Army and Air Force respectively. All three have multiple international medals to their name and have become the first weightlifters from Maharashtra to win medals at the Commonwealth Games.
“All three boys have put in lots of hard work. They have made sacrifices along the way and these medals are just rewards for that. Omkar had given up the sport, Chandrakant came out of a serious injury and Ganesh managed to train himself after squeezing out time from his work in the fields,” says Patil. “They are all great sources of motivation, and something that will give a lot of hope to young boys who want to serve the country.”