Vinod Kumar was a promising young wrestler at Satpal Singh’s akhada along with Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt until a fight with fellow grapplers nearly ended his career and almost his life. He picked up the pieces and returned to the sport stronger. Last month, he qualified for the Rio Olympics. Not for India, though. Instead, the 31-year-old from Haryana will represent Australia. VINAY SIWACH traces the grappler’s remarkable journey
THE DUDHSAGAR FALLS on the Mandovi River in Goa are a sight to behold, even more spectacular when passing through them in a train. Vinod Kumar had never seen anything like this before. The wrestler looked through the window while travelling to Karnataka for a national level meet, admiring nature’s magnificence when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Before he could react, a fellow wrestler stared down on him, beating him mercilessly before throwing him out of a running train.
Vinod does not recall much of what transpired but remembers lying on the tracks in a pool of blood. He suffered fractures on his arms, legs and skull and as he waited for help, the grappler fell unconscious, not knowing if he would ever wake up again.
He survived. And last month, he qualified for the Rio Olympics. Not for India, however. The 31-year-old will instead represent Australia at this August’s Games in the 66kg Greco-Roman category. It’s a remarkable journey, that leaps across distant continents and towering hurdles.
Every Sunday for the last six years, Jhanno Devi waits for her mobile to ring. It’s the only day of the week when her eyes await for the device to come alive. As the weekend approaches, she pesters her son, Om Prakash, to ensure the phone is well-charged. For, it’s the day when Jhanno Devi’s youngest son Vinod makes his weekly call from Australia.
It’s become a ritual. So when her phone didn’t ring on the first Sunday of April, Jhanno Devi became anxious. The only update she got was from Om Prakash, who informed her that Vinod was ‘busy’. For the next two days, however, she carried the phone wherever she went. She would get smirked at, even ridiculed. Elderly women in Khanda, Haryana, aren’t known to flaunt a phone.
While she waited for the customary call, Vinod had been busy with his Olympic qualifying event in Algeria. That day, he became only the second India-born Australian to qualify for Olympics after winning the silver medal at the Africa/ Oceania Olympics Qualifiers that were held in Algeria from April 1 to 3. He follows the path charted by Sandeep Kumar, who represented Australia at the Beijing Games in the 84kg freestyle category. “She waits every Sunday for my call with the phone in hand. Six years have passed by,” Vinod tells The Sunday Express over phone from Melbourne.
Vinod’s journey began in Khanda, back in 1994 where he picked up wrestling like most other children residing there. What began as a casual affair grew serious as years passed by and in 1998, he decided to join Satpal Singh’s akhada in Delhi.
Along with Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, Vinod was seen as a promising wrestlers. Within two years, he was on the move and began participating in tournaments outside Delhi. He was growing under the shadow of Sushil and Yogeshwar, who he idolises now. His career graph was on the rise until it came crashing down in 2000.
The 31-year-old was returning from a tournament in Karnataka with other wrestlers when the ‘incident’ happened. Vinod does not wish to recall it, but suffice to say that when the train was crossing the Dudhsagar waterfalls, that mal-intended push from a fellow wrestler, whom he had defeated in the tournament, saw him fall off the moving train. “It was sudden. I just lay there unconscious. There were fractures in my knee, arms, skull and even my stomach was bleeding. My clothes were ripped off and I lay there in an underwear. Luckily I did not fall in the waterfalls otherwise I would not be alive today,” he recalls.
He spent the next 15 days in the hospital but his family was unable to meet the expenses of his treatment. They decided to take him back to their village and for the next one year, Vinod lay on his bed, the dream of wrestling fading with each passing day. “My mother used to sit next to me and asked me what would I do? I had no answer. Everyone had lost hope, including myself. My weight dropped to 40kg and kids in the village used to say many things about me. Langde ghode pe koi daav nahi lagata (no one bets on an injured horse),” Vinod says.
But Vinod wouldn’t go down without a fight. While he was bed-ridden, he started reading books written by spiritual guru Osho, which he says motivated him to wrestle again. At the same time, former India wrestler Pawan Kumar, who used to train at the same akhada with Vinod, called him. “Pawan is like a brother. He called me and asked me to return to Delhi. I wasn’t fully fit but he insisted. So I decided to pack my bags and go there. Since that day, I have not turned back,” he says.
With a better diet and workout at the akhada, Vinod began to gather strength and gain weight. Pawan took him to NIS, Patiala and kept him under his guidance. That was another turning point in Vinod’s career. From there he began to wrestle again, first at the dangals. “I fought dangals all over India as I wanted to earn some money. My family was not providing me with anything so it was all up to me. I fought in Karnataka, Punjab, Haryana and Himachal to earn money. I was Punjab Kesari as well in my category. I lost a few because of my over-confidence but I was doing okay,” he says.
Life seemed to be back on track for Vinod. He was wrestling again and earned enough to take care of himself. He, however, did not return to the akhada in Delhi as his family remained reluctant to send him back there. But life took an ugly turn for him. “I was staying in Mohali. But one day I found that my friends abandoned me at the rented place where we used to stay. I had no option but to return home,” he says. “It was after three years that I saw my mother. Days passed by and I kept on wrestling but was never able to make it to international tournaments because there were better wrestlers. Especially Yogeshwar, he was far better,” he admits.
With his career heading nowhere, Vinod was increasingly getting frustrated. That’s when an opportunity knocked on his door. After years of struggle and living in the shadows of fellow wrestlers, Vinod finally got his chance and travelled Down Under for the Australia Cup in 2009. And that tournament was the beginning of a journey that would eventually take him to Olympics.
“I finished third and I knew that it was a good result. Sandeep Kumar was an Indian wrestler who had played for Australia in Olympics. I contacted him and he told me that this is a good place to do wrestling though money is not there. I decided that I will shift here. But, I needed funds,” he says.
Once again, Pawan came to his rescue. And with some help from his family and loans from banks, Vinod managed to gather Rs 17 lakh and landed in Australia. “I love my country. I wanted to be a fauji and even had a licensed pistol with me. But to travel to Australia, I had to sell it. It fetched me Rs 70,000. When I reached here, I had to pay back loans. And that is why I don’t enjoy being here like others,” he says. “I haven’t built a pucca house for my mother in the village because I don’t have any money. I wear shoes worth 250 Australian dollars and they tear after 3 months. Everything I earn goes into my wrestling,” he says.
When he first landed in Australia, Vinod was lost in the new country. He tried to blend in but language was his biggest barrier. Somehow, though, he managed with help from his first wrestling coach in Australia and the then Wrestling Australia president Kuldip Bassi. “Bassi guided me and I used to practice at his club. Slowly I learnt the system here and then just focussed on training. Problems were a plenty beginning with finding a job, house and money. The first thing I did was to search for a job” he recalls.
He did get one — a newspaper hawker. For each house he delivered the newspaper to, Vinod was paid 40 cents. “I needed more money but it was difficult to find a job that pays you big sums of money. So I decided to cover as many houses as possible. There were days when I used to cover 800 houses in one morning, all on foot,” he says.
After the morning duty, Vinod used to train and go for a cross country run. After a two-hour rest in the afternoon, he used to be at the gym, strengthening his muscles. For extra money, he found another job. “I started working as a bouncer at a night club. You get good money on hourly basis. They know I am not good at English but they also know that I am strong. I still do that job, on weekends.”
As years passed, Vinod won several national titles in Australian wrestling circles. Gold medals in regional and national tournaments motivated him to train harder and also brought him into prominence. “My friends used to say that you waste your time either training or working, why don’t you enjoy? But I was focussed on wrestling. I borrowed some money from friends in India and Australia to buy a delivery van and started delivering couriers. Every morning after training, I used to do that till sunset and then reach the wrestling arena. That was my day. But this is nothing and thank God I had worked harder when I was in India. I had learnt everything there. I just had to keep myself fit here,” he says.
Life has not been easy for Vinod in the foreign land but he has his ways of keeping himself motivated. “I watch movies… Paan Singh Tomar, Manjhi and there are many more. Movies inspire me. I break my body everyday. For health purposes, I drink black coffee,” he laughs.
Vinod misses home. He claims to have adjusted to the lifestyle in Australia but wants to visit Haryana before the Rio Olympics. It has been more than two years that he last saw his mother. “I have planned an exposure trip to train before the Rio Games. Any country where I can get good coaching. USA, Georgia and Russia are there. I can come to India as well. There are good coaches and I can stay at home for some time,” he says.
So does he want to return to India for good after the Olympics? “It’s nice here. I like it. I have a Kabaddi club here and I also fight in the MMA. I want to continue it after Olympics. People are willing to pay me big money if I coach in their wrestling clubs. I haven’t decided about it but I will like to stay here,” the grappler says.
Kabaddi is a part-time affair for Vinod and his friends in Melbourne. The Melbourne club members play every Sunday and Vinod says he is a “decent” stopper. “Ek-do stops toh pakka hai game mein,” he says, proud that he is one of the best in the team.
After the kabaddi game, the whole bunch of players assembles at Vinod’s house and drink crushed almond shake, a drink which has made him popular among the residents there. “They come to my house to drink that. I have been drinking that since I started wrestling. They like it very much,” he says.
On weekends he is busy at the night club as a bouncer. He struggles to speak to them in English but he easily handles the crowd in the club when it is closing time. And when a fight breaks at the club, Vinod quickly springs into action.
“If there is a fight then I can handle it quite easily. They know they can’t fight me so it becomes easy. I just pin them down. There are so many problems in every job. I have done Mushroom packaging at a factory. That was okay,” he describes.
He, however, hasn’t let any of this affect his wrestling. Last month, Vinod may have missed calling his mother for the first time since he arrived in Australia in 2010 but he made sure to never miss a training session.
Back in Khanda, Jhanno Devi’s phone finally rang after three days of wait. She didn’t hide her anger: “Were you so busy that you could not even call me?” she asked.
Vinod had his answer ready: “Maa tu kehti thi na ye sab Olympics khelne jate hai, pata nahi mera beta kab jayega. Ab to tu bhi keh sakti hai ki tune ek Olympian jo janam diya hai (Mother, you always said that ‘everyone else went for Olympics, when will my son go?’ Now you can also proudly say you’ve given birth to an Olympian.”
For once, Jhanno Devi didn’t mind her son not making the customary weekend call.
Road to Rio begins with crowdfunding
The Olympic berth has brought Vinod joy and worries in equal measure. For the last six months, he has been without a stable job, with training consuming most of his time. And now that he has qualified, Vinod plans to train abroad. However, financial constraints are making things difficult for him. With wrestling attracting few sponsors in Australia, he has resorted to crowdfunding. Vinod has put up his profile on http://www.gofundme.com and is seeking for funds. Four days into the campaign, he has been able to raise A$ 471. The target is A$22, 000 dollars. With time running out, Vinod is keeping his fingers crossed.
Team of migrants
Australia will send its biggest-ever wrestling contingent for the Olympics. But curiously, the team is full of migrants. Like Vinod, other Rio-bound wrestlers weren’t born in Australia.
Talgat Ilyasov: Originally from Uzbekistan, he was close to representing Australia in the Athens Olympics but injury saw him miss the chance. Twelve years later, he is back.
Ivan Popov: He is the son of 1987 World Champion Vladimir Popov. He won the gold medal in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The Russian will compete in the 130 kg category .
Sahit Prizreni: Once the pride of Albanian wrestling, Sahit will compete for Australia in the 65kg freestyle category at the Rio Games.