Get, set, Rio: Story of eight India athletes who will make Olympics debut at Rio

From Prakash Nanjappa, the oldest Indian marksman to make his Olympic debut, to Sandeep Tomar, the wrestler who is hoping to trade his nickname ‘talli’ for a more respectable ‘Olympian’ – meet eight sportspersons who will be in Rio de Janeiro for their first ever Games as part of India’s largest ever contingent

Updated: July 3, 2016 3:26 pm

Sandeep Tomar, wrestler hoping to trade nickname ‘talli’ for ‘Olympian’

Sandeep Tomar, Sandeep Tomar wrestling, India olympics, Rio Olympics, Rio Olympics India, Sandeep Tomar Olympics, Sports news Chief coach Jagminder Singh says Sandeep Tomar’s biggest strength is his confidence. (Express Photo by Oinam Anand)

Like many wrestlers who competed in the Indian mud wrestling form of kushti, Sandeep Tomar too had a nickname — talli. As nicknames go, Tomar’s — which means drunk — seems a rather cruel one. He got it not because of any indiscretion with alcohol but because, as a child, he was particularly fond of sleeping. The name stuck and stayed with him during his days at SAI’s national wrestling camp in Sonepat.

On August 19, when the 25-year-old gets on the mat in Rio de Janeiro in the 57 kg category, ‘talli’ will make way for a more flattering tag: ‘Olympian’ Sandeep Tomar.

Tomar began wrestling when he was 12. In his first competition, at a local dangal in his village Malakpur in western UP’s Baghpat district, he wrestled seven bouts, winning a grand total of Rs 14 for pinning all his opponents.

The stakes have risen steadily ever since. He was junior national champion in 2011 and won the senior title the next year. While he was seen as a top prospect, he was never in the reckoning for the 2012 London Olympics.

In 2011, when the Olympic trials for London were being held, Tomar was completing his training with the Navy, which he had just joined. “It was just my luck that when the trials were being held, I was completing my course at the training station base, INS Chilka, in Orissa,” says the chief petty officer with the Navy.

Tomar now believes that miss was for the good. “I was young and I hadn’t taken part in a lot of competitions. This time round, I have a lot more experience,” he says. Indeed, Tomar has won consistently in international competitions in the run-up to Rio. He won bronze medals in consecutive years — 2013 and 2014 — at the Dave Schultz memorial in the USA and took gold at the World Military Championships in 2014. This year, he added the Asian Championship gold to his tally, beating the defending Asian Games champion Jong Hak-Jin for the title. He subsequently booked his Olympic quota after finishing third at the World Olympic qualifiers in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia.

Tomar’s win at the Asian Championships was all the more impressive considering he had just recovered from a knee injury, compounded by a serious bout of dengue towards the end of the previous year. Just two days after being discharged from hospital, Tomar was back at the SAI campus for his training.

Chief coach Jagminder Singh says Tomar’s biggest strength is his confidence. “He doesn’t know when he is beaten. There are some wrestlers, who, when they face an opponent from, say, Iran or Russia, lose a little bit of confidence. Sandeep has immense self-belief. It doesn’t matter who he faces, he always thinks he is going to win,” says Jagminder.

 — Jonathan Selvaraj

Daughter of coal mine waorker, Laxmi Rani Majhi takes up archery

Laxmi Rani Majhi, India Archery, India Archers, Rio Olympics, Olympics, India Olympics, India Olympic archers, Sports news Majhi’s coach says she is good at soaking in pressure. (Source: Bangalore News Photos)

Laxmi Rani Majhi was studying in a government school in Bagula, West Bengal, when national coach Dharmendra Tiwary, along with a couple of others scouting for young archery talent, came visiting. Tiwary came up to Majhi’s class and asked if any of them would be interested in learning the sport. Only one hand went up — Majhi’s.

Daughter of a coal-mine worker, Majhi knew nothing of archery but had seen many from her village take that route to earn a living. “My father’s job was very dangerous. I did not want him to do that, so I thought I would take up archery and he can retire,” she says. “Fortunately, I did well for myself. And my father is at a higher position now, so he does not have to go deep in the mines anymore.”

Majhi is the least experienced among the three women archers representing India in Rio. Her teammates — Deepika Kumari and Bombayla Devi – were at the London Olympics, where they both suffered a shocking meltdown.

Tiwary says Majhi, who shoots second in the team event, provides much-needed balance to the team because of her ability to soak in pressure. She is also known to score 10s frequently, a consistency that will be crucial if the archery team hopes to finish on the podium.

Although she is youngest of the three archers, Majhi exudes the confidence of a veteran. “It’s important not to feel the pressure,” she says. “Just relax and enjoy. Results will follow.”

— Mihir Vasavda 

Avtar Singh encashed fixed deposits for Rio

avtar singh, avtar singh judo, avtar singh olympics, olympics judo, olympics india, india at olympics, rio olympics, olympics 2016, sports news Avtar Singh’s family put together all their resources to fund his foreign trips

Avtar Singh didn’t get into judo by accident. It was a calculated move by his parents to “tire out” the 11-year-old. “As a child I was always up to some prank or the other. Judo se pehle main ghar walon ko tanng karta tha (Before I took up judo, I would trouble my family). So they put me in judo so that I’d get physically tired,” recalls Avtar, who is the first Indian male judoka to qualify for the Olympics since Akram Shah (60 kg) competed in Athens 2004.

Avtar competes in the 90 kg category.

Before he took up judo, the boy from Kothe Ghurala village, 2 km from Gurdaspur city, would help his mother on the family farm, tending to the rice and wheat and looking after the cattle. As he toiled in the field under his mother’s supervision — his father worked in the Punjab government health department — Avtar grew in strength and height.

At 14, he touched the six-foot-mark, eventually rising to four inches higher. With his power and height, he started dominating judo mats.

But the bigger fights lay outside the mat. His family struggled to meet the expenses for Avtar’s foreign trips so that he could compete in international events. Eventually, he improved his ranking to 70.

When he had to travel to Turkey for the Samsung Grand Prix once, his parents encashed their fixed deposits and handed over the entire family savings for him to get on the plane.

His impressive performances at the Asian Championship in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in April further improved his rank significantly. There, he lost in the semi-finals but then beat Iran’s Saeed Moradi in the repechage round to qualify for the Olympics.

— Shahid Judge

Olympics debutant Kynan Chenai determined not to be starstruck in Rio

Kynan Chenai, Kynan Chenai Olympics, Kynan Chenai Rio Olympics, Rio Olympics, India at Rio Olympics, Olympics shooting, India Olympic shooters, India news, Sports news The first-timer is determined not to be star-struck — unless he runs into “Roger or Djokovic”

Kynan Chenai was in London a few years ago. But not ‘there’ for the Olympics. Not ‘there’ when the five giant Olympic rings were suspended from the Tower Bridge or when the interlocked circles, mounted on a barge, passed under it to ring in the biggest sporting spectacle. Which was odd.

Kynan was studying at a university there and the young shooter says he felt trapped on the campus, far away from his life’s target — the Olympics. He was miserable.

“When I was young and just starting to shoot, I would see Olympic rings somewhere and I would tell myself that I would work to be there one day. I would watch the Games on TV every four years and would be dying to be there,” he says.

Father Darius, who incidentally won the National Shooting Championship held last December in Jaipur, would finally take the call. Pulling his son out of university, he brought the drooping shoulders back to India and urged him to re-start shooting full-time. “This time I’ll be at the Olympics. It’s happening. So I’m very happy,” Kynan says.

The 25-year-old had an eventful qualification. He won the quota in January after missing the first two World Cups of the season and watching his dad win the nationals ahead of him — he says he got ribbed for it. The quota place wasn’t enough as he lagged in the national selection trials — a longer process that rewards consistency. But lagged only just. So when a quota swap came up, the youngster regained his berth.

Kynan had a good outing at the World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan — narrowly missing out on medals after qualifying for the finals — assuring him that his five hours a day on the range and three hours in the gym were doing him good.

Kynan says the enormity of representing India at the Games is yet to sink in. “I think it will hit me only after the Games, because you can only be an Olympian after you have gone and participated,” he says.

He might be a first-timer but he’s determined not to be too star-struck — unless he runs into “Roger or Djokovic” in the Games Village. Getting into the Olympics was his dream but he doesn’t want the Olympics to get to him. “I forget everything when it’s just me and the target. In my opinion, training is the hard part, competition is the fun stuff,” he says.

Shooters carry a lot of baggage into Olympics — the literal luggage of the shotgun and equipment, that is. So Kynan Chenai wants to travel light otherwise. “Pair of sun glasses, flip flops and some mosquito repellent, that’s it.” And a crystallised fulfilled dream.

— Shivani Naik

Prarthana Thombre hopes for a run-in with Usain Bolt at Rio

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Till she was 14 years old, Prarthana Thombare’s town Barshi did not have a broad gauge railway line. It was known for its ultra-slow hop-on, hop-off jhuk-jhuk called the Barshi Light Railways. It was a sleepy route that halted eventually at this speck of a town in Maharashtra’s Solapur district. It’s here that Prarthana grew up, hitting the ball against the wall of her house with a racquet for hours on end.

From there to the Olympics has been one long ride. She would start pairing up with Sania Mirza at the Federation Cup, then go to train at her academy in Hyderabad.

It was, however, over a long flight to Paris that Prarthana knew for sure that she had been picked to partner Mirza at Rio. “I was on the flight to Paris when my name was declared. So when I landed, I was showered with messages,” says the 22-year-old who is the least known among the Grand Slam regulars who comprise the four-member tennis contingent. She is also India’s second best ranked doubles player — though at a distant 208 in the World rankings.

For someone who is taking Martina Hingis’s place as Sania Mirza’s partner for the Games, the Olympics is as big as it gets.

Preparing for the Olympics meant Prarthana was put through the paces by international fitness trainer Robert Ballard. “His sessions were the toughest,” she says.

For her maiden Olympic sojourn, she will pack in an ethnic Indian dress and some Indian savouries. “And a bit of luck if I can,” she laughs. There’s one wish. “I hope to meet Usain Bolt.”

The girl has come a long way — from watching one of the slowest trains chug past to hoping to running into the fastest man on earth.

— Shivani Naik

India’s oldest debutant marksman at Rio – Prakash Nanjappa

Prakash Nanjappa, Prakash Nanjappa Olypmics, Rio Olympics, India at Rio Olympics, Olympics shooting, India Olympic shooters, India news, Sports news Prakash Nanjappa has been taking tips from Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang

It was a routine father-son banter that got Prakash Nanjappa hooked to shooting in 1999. Nanjappa senior was practising his stance for a state-level tournament at their Bengaluru home when Prakash mocked him. The father hit back — “try it yourself, if you think it’s that easy”.

Prakash, a college student then, took on the challenge but stuck to hobby shooting. Prakash earned himself a degree in engineering and landed a job with an MNC in Toronto. It was another conversation with his father that got Prakash thinking about shooting as a career till he finally took part in the Canadian national championships in 2008. There, he scored 575 points to equal Canada’s national record and suddenly, Nanjappa knew what he had to do.

He quit his job, moved back to India and competed in domestic tournaments, which saw him rising through the ranks. Now at 40, Prakash finds himself making his Olympic debut. “When I came back from Canada, I never had the idea of qualifying for the Olympics because that is a long journey,” he said, before leaving for the World Cup in Baku in late June. He is now training in South Korea.

The oldest Indian marksman to make the Olympic debut says he has been picking the brains of shooters who are younger in age but more experienced than him. Prakash has been routinely exchanging notes with Abhinav Bindra and Gagan Narang while also closely following the routine of fellow pistol shooter and medal favourite Jitu Rai — all of whom will aim for the bull’s eye in Rio.

The road to Rio hasn’t been easy. In 2013, Nanjappa became the first Indian pistol shooter to win a World Cup medal and also the oldest. But while on his way to Spain for another World Cup the following month, Prakash suffered facial paralysis.

He recovered and returned to the circuit the following year and won a silver medal at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, his first major multi-discipline event. While his performances since then have been inconsistent, Prakash is quietly confident of doing well in Rio. But he isn’t thinking about the results. “I am looking at all this as a journey,” he says.

— Mihir Vasavda

From unable to run to now a marathoner — Nitender Singh Rawat

Nitender Singh, Nitender Singh Olympics, Nitender Singh Rio Olympics, Rio Olympics, Olympics, India at Olympics, Olympics marathon, India news. Sports news The secret to his endurance, Rawat says, is the long treks he would make to school in the Garhwal hills. (Source: Bangalore News Photos)

Nitender Singh Rawat remembers his days in Poonch, a town near the Line of Control in Jammu, where he was posted in 2008 as infantry havaldar of the 6th Kumaon Regiment.

A shin injury had dealt a blow to the budding career of this cross-country athlete and being no longer able to train, he was asked to put aside his tracksuit, wear military fatigues and start patrolling.

The break from the grind of running cross country races and training proved a blessing in disguise. After three months of duty in Poonch, Rawat, who gradually recovered from the injury, travelled to the Army Placement Node in Secunderabad, hoping to get back on the track. A year later, he was at the Army Sports Institute in Pune, back to doing what he enjoys best.

Looking back, the marathoner, who clocked 2 hour 18 minutes and 06 seconds to dip well under the Rio Qualifying Standard, says he has always preferred the road event to the track. “Initially, I had to persuade my coach Surinder Singh to allow me to run road races. I knew that I had the endurance to compete in the 42-km event. One day he asked me to run 32 km. I completed the distance in good shape. My coach was convinced I had the potential to run the marathon,” Rawat said.

In October last year, he qualified for the Olympics in his first competitive event — at the World Military Games in Mungyeong, South Korea.

The secret to his endurance, Rawat says, is growing up in Anna village, 1,100 metres above sea level in Garur town in the Garhwal hills. “Those days, there were no proper roads and I had to trek 4-5 km each way to get to school. I guess that was my early initiation into high-altitude training,” Rawat says.

The army man now aims to go faster —his personal best is 2:15.18, registered at the South Asian Games earlier this year — and he has set his sights on running 2:10.00 at the Olympic Games. It is no mean feat considering he will have to break the national record – 2:12.00 – set by Shivnath Singh 38 years ago.

“I am the first national-level athlete from my village and I want to make everyone proud by doing something big at the Olympic Games. I aim to break the national record. There is no point going to the Olympic Games and not achieving something.”

— Nihal Koshie

India’s table tennis hope for Rio – Manika Batra

Manika Batra, Manika Batra Olympics, Manika Batra Table tennis, India Table Tennis, Table Tennis India, India Olympics, Rio olympics, Olympics, Sports news Manika Batra won gold in the 2nd Division of the World Table Tennis Team Championship held in Kuala Lumpur in March, an unprecedented feat. (Express Photo by Jasbir Malhi)

Manika Batra’s father has been home for the last many years, recovering from a mental health condition that forced him to watch from the sidelines and cheer silently as his daughter brought home the medals. But the day Manika returned to New Delhi from Hong Kong, where she had secured a berth for her first-ever Olympics, her father joined the rest of the family as they went to the airport to receive her. “We danced our way home,” recalls Sushma Batra, Manika’s mother.

As a four-year-old, Manika would tag along with her her elder sister Anchal as she trained at Hansraj Model School. Anchal would soon leave table tennis while Manika would go on to become India No 1.

Ranked 115th in the world, Manika claims she began thinking about taking up the sport professionally when she was 11. “Since I was nine, I have been winning all Delhi tournaments. So I thought it was time to move to bigger events,” says Manika.

Her mother Sushma says Manika, the youngest of her three children, was always determined to pursue the sport. “She loved fooling around and playing with her toys as a child. But when it was time for practice, somehow she would always be serious and determined. We never forced her to play, but we could tell that she was enjoying it,” says Sushma.

Soon, a growth spurt kicked in and Manika, now a 5’11’’ youngster, made her way into the senior national team, while simultaneously playing in the juniors.

At home, Sushma did her best to ensure Manika was not distracted by her father’s illness. “I doubled up as her mother and father while she was growing up. I made sure nothing got in the way of her training,” Sushma adds.

Soon after returning from the Commonwealth Games in 2014, Manika worked on her fitness and the medals followed. She won two silvers in the team events and a bronze in the singles at the Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships last December.

She followed that up with an unprecedented feat, winning gold in the 2nd Division of the World TT Team Championship in March.

Her successes have meant fewer hours with family, but her mother says she looks forward to their weekend shopping trips. “Sometimes she buys me things that she likes but knows I will not. And then she keeps them for herself,” says Sushma.

— Shahid Judge