When he first stepped inside the mitti akhara as a 12-year-old, it was almost inevitable that Sandeep Tomar would end up being an Olympian. After all, Malakpur has produced more Olympians in individual sport than any other village in the country. Vinay Siwach traces the journey of the 25-year-old wrestler, as the tiny Uttar Pradesh hamlet prays together for him to return not as just another Olympian but as its first medallist.
THE ROAD to Malakpur, a tiny village in Uttar Pradesh, is littered with hoardings of various educational institutes on both sides. They keep alternating with advertisements of coaching academies that give you the assurance of cracking the entrance exams to get into those institutes. Keep driving and you’ll see MS Dhoni and Rohit Sharma selling the latest brands.
The landscape, however, changes just before you enter Malakpur. The hoardings disappear and the first thing you notice upon entering the village is a giant gate with ‘Subhash Pehelwan’ inscribed on the name-plate. It details all his achievements – an Olympian, Asian Champion… the list goes on. You drive further in the village and you come across two more houses that have the word ‘Olympian’ at their entrance.
Cricket isn’t Malakpur’s first love. They follow the game like any other part of the country but the locals do not worship the cricketers. Their heart beats for wrestling. And wrestlers enjoy the same stardom as cricketers.
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So when Sandeep Tomar became the fourth Olympian from the village, it was hardly surprising. It’s almost like he was destined to be one. No other village in India can boast of producing four Olympians in wresting or, for that matter, any other individual sport. You can sense the pride the village takes in its newest Olympian. But the village does not want Tomar to stop at this. They want him to return not just as an Olympian, but as the village’s first medallist.
Tomar wouldn’t be your first pick to win a medal at Rio. Very few athletes going to their first Olympics have medalled. Yogeshwar Dutt and Narsingh Yadav are the safe bets. But the locals insist their optimism isn’t misplaced. They point to his record, which is indeed impressive. In the nine competitions he has taken part in outside India in the 57kg category, Tomar has never returned without a medal – four gold, one silver and four bronze.
Incidentally, his first international tournament in 2012 was in Rio and in a field of 10 wrestlers, Tomar finished on top of the podium. When he returned, his father Harpal invited the entire village over. “I was confident that he will get a medal but gold was a surprise. We celebrated it in a grand manner. Since then he has won more medals and we have celebrated each of his triumph,” Harpal says. With less than a month to go before Olympics, they’re performing a havan. It’s the last time he is visiting home before he leaves for his maiden Olympics and, not surprisingly, hoardes of well-wishers have turned up at his doorstep. Tomar isn’t comfortable with the attention he is getting. But he sits through the ceremony, hands folded and eyes closed. As the mantras are chanted in chorus, the rest of the villagers too pray with folded hands, seeking a divine intervention for their favourite son.
A couple of months ago, this could well have been a gathering for his marriage. Harpal had warned his son that if he failed to win an Olympic berth this time, he would have been the groom sitting in a wedding tent. Despite his incredible record abroad, Tomar has struggled back home. His challengers Rahul Aware and Amit Dahiya have got the better of him in the selection trials for major championships. Even during the selection trials for Olympic qualifiers in March this year, Tomar was the second-best after Aware.
It was only because the Maharashtra wrestler failed to win a quota in the first qualifier that Tomar got an opportunity, and he grabbed it with both hands. “I have lost at important competitions here. I lost in the last five seconds at the World Championship trials last year. Even at the Olympics qualifying trials I lost after leading. I regret that but now that I am in Olympics it doesn’t matter much,” he says.
Bride-hunting, though, is still on. Proposals have been pouring in especially after he qualified for the Olympics. “Recently, four proposals came the same day. They still keep coming,” his father says.
The surge in interest extends beyond the immediate circle. It includes even his sister’s friends as well. But Tomar smiles, dismissively. He has a lot of things on his mind right now. Marriage, much to his family’s disappointment, isn’t among them.
Despite his slight built and struggles against fellow campers, ‘Khalifa’ – or coach – had little doubt over his ward’s abilities. Iqbal Singh, the head coach of a local akhara, has trained more than 500 wrestlers at his modest mitti akhara here. The boys start out as young as six years old and train here for around seven years before heading out to bigger centres in the hope of making a name for themselves in the wrestling circles.
“There have been many wrestlers in our village and we have Olympians as well. We are proud that our boys are serving the nation. There are also boys in defence and kabaddi,” Iqbal says. “My job is to prepare them and teach them wrestling. I also take them to tournaments in the district and state. If they perform and luck is with them, they go on to attend national camps. So many have gone from here,” he says.
The village has three akhadas with a mud pit each. The pits are no bigger that 15-square feet in size. Wrestlers from other villages also come here to train under the Khalifa. Many of them have won the titles including ‘Bharat Kesari’ and ‘Hind Kesari’ and have landed in good government jobs. Others have fallen back on their sugarcane farms, following their family custom.
Tomar, Iqbal says, is just following the tradition. He started later than most wrestlers he has trained but there was never a doubt over his abilities. Iqbal is worried that, in the last one year, kabaddi has started attracting more players from wrestling. They’re pinning hopes on Tomar to reverse this trend. “It will once again be the top sport now that another boy is going to the Olympics. It’s nice to have competition,” Iqbal says.
Tomar has also trained at one of those akhadas. Like other families in the village, his family too has a tradition in wrestling. His grandfather was a super heavyweight wrestler and his father, primarily a kabaddi player, wrestled when not playing his sport. This led Tomar to the akhada. His father would at first stop him from going there but once he realised that Tomar was interested in investing long hours, he motivated his son to perform well.
“I did stop him but since he was interested I decided not to. He won the first dangal he participated in and received Rs 14 as prize money. He came home and handed it to me. Since that day, I have never stopped him from wrestling,” Harpal says.
Tomar has also repaid his faith by winning various titles at different levels. After his first title in sub-junior nationals in 2008, Tomar decided to practice on the mat. Since the village had only mud-pits to train, a used mat was brought to the village. It was placed in a room and once his practice was over, they would remove it.
His career took a turn when Navy coach Kuldeep Singh met him while he was preparing for his bout during the senior nationals. “He asked me to change my category from 50kg to 55kg for the competition. Without giving it a second thought, I did it. I managed to win a gold,” Tomar says.
Tomar has been training under Kuldeep since then and also managed to get a job with the Navy. “He focussed on me, helped me improve my technique, which made me a better wrestler. He is still my coach. I have achieved a lot because of him,” he says.
His father also credits Navy, but for a different reason. “If that job hadn’t come, it would have been difficult for me to meet the expenses. Our family is well-off and there is no shortage of anything. But if we wanted him to become a better wrestler, he needed better diet and training. That was taken care of by Navy,” he says.
Like any other wrestlers, milk and almonds form a crucial part of Tomar’s diet. His mother has kept a glass of milk and some sweets ready just as he enters his house for the havan. For lunch, she insists, he will have to eat ‘proper food.’ So the Rio-bound wrestler, for one last time before his event, indulges in his favourite curries, puri, a glass of buttermilk, some more sweets and salad. “I’ll have to work out extra after this meal,” he smiles, before heading towards his room for a quick nap.
At the entrance to his room, there are two pictures. One is with his coach Kuldeep after he won the bronze medal at the first World Olympic qualifiers in Mongolia, which ensured his Rio berth. The second is with prime minister Narendra Modi at the felicitation programme held in New Delhi earlier this month. “I don’t know who gets them framed so quickly. I didn’t send it to my family. But I know they have done it,” he says, embarrassed.
The room itself is decorated with photographs and medals. Some of them are from his school, the others from recent tournaments. He says he must have won 70 medals so far but only 38 are with him. “He does like to sleep a lot,” his close friend Vikrant jokes, but quickly adds, “But as a wrestler you train so much that rest is necessary. He has all the good qualities except one,” he says.
Thus begins the banter between the two friends. “At the national camps, he steals other wrestler’s socks. He doesn’t even spare the coach. Once, Kuldeep sir had four fresh pairs so Sandeep went to his room and just like that, took a couple,” Vikrant says. “He does it just for fun, of course.”
Tomar loves driving and bought his first car in February. But his father has warned him not to drive frequently, at least till the Olympics to prevent any injury. “I don’t want to take any risk now. He is a sensible boy. He bought this car four months back after my permission but I told him not to drive often,” Harpal says.
One by one, they all meet him personally before departing. Young and old, men and women, little boys and girls. Tomar turns pink when three women, wearing a scarf around their head, walk up to him and ask for a selfie. “Ghoongat toh uthaiye,” he requests them, politely. They do what they’re told and pose with a ‘V’ sign.
Village elders ask him to do the hard work and leave the rest to the almighty. There’re tears and more goodbyes as he sits on the drivers’ seat of his car when a young girl rushes towards him. “You have brought me shoes, dresses, everything. But this time, just bring home a medal,” she says.
And it’s not just his sister wishing that. The entire village is dreaming of a medal.