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Life in Satpal’s akhada: Early mornings and lots of ghee

Yashvir Singh is well acquainted with the fleeting essence of time. The wrestling coach is shuffling between interviews...

Written by Shreyachakravertty | New Delhi |
August 26, 2008 11:41:44 pm

Yashvir Singh is well acquainted with the fleeting essence of time. The wrestling coach is shuffling between interviews at the Chhatrasal Stadium, painting a picture of Sushil Kumar for those of us who didn’t bother examining his life before the wrestler delivered an Olympic medal. And the veteran is adamant about one thing: It’ll never last. “After ten days, there will be nobody here. You all will forget, and nobody will remember us. I’m not lying,” he says, calmly, not a hint of antagonism in his tone.

Satpal Singh’s akhada is where the champion was made, and as the tidbits of information keep pouring out, the more one gets drawn into the tale. Founded by the man they call their guru, 1982 Asian Games gold medallist Satpal, the akhada is just as firm about the rules as it was back in its debut year in 1988. “Discipline,” echo Yashvir and fellow coach Virender Singh, when asked about the most vital ingredient their chief has kept constant. “Satpal is extremely particular about the way these boys live. No one goes out of this place, and if they do, it’s only after asking us. If anyone breaks this rule, he is told to leave,” Yashvir says. “You never know what might influence them outside. We have a routine here, and they have to follow it.”

The man who started it all, though, is unwilling to grab all the praise. “This is a great moment for the country, not just for me or Sushil,” says Satpal, speaking to The Indian Express from Beijing. “Whether anybody else expected it or not, we were sure because we were fully prepared. We put in so much of practice, and I could see the other participants were tiring out faster. In the new format, wrestlers have to defeat up to four opponents in an hour. The others just couldn’t handle it, they didn’t have the stamina.”

The 60-odd young wrestlers at the stadium have come here in different circumstances — some were scouted from national meets, while others such as Sushil were sent by their parents. Once they enter the tutelage of the guru, it’s a whole new world.

A wake-up call at 3:45 am, and some freshening up later, the boys are down to business. A quick jog around the athletics track at the stadium, and a game of football or handball begins the day’s agenda. “We divide the boys in groups: One group plays football, the other do some rope climbing, while the rest are sent to the wrestling mat. These groups keep rotating, and apart from that, we have special exercises for them. Satpal oversees all the training sessions,” says Yashvir, who has been here for the last 16 years.

They take an hour’s break around 8 am, and head for freshly squeezed juice or milk, whatever they may prefer, before returning to the akhada. A few hours later, it’s meal time, and of course, a wrestler’s diet must not be lacking in any ingredient. “There is a kitchen here, but either Satpal or one of us coaches supervises the cooking, to make sure everything is in order. The dal has to have enough tadka, there has to be sufficient ghee,” he adds.

Post breakfast, a couple of hours are given in as study time for those still pursuing education. The evening session of training begins at 5, and this one is completely devoted to technique. The sport, explains Virender, has seen plenty of transformation. There is a mud pit right next to the wrestling mat, obsolete in international competition, but that is where the dream was formed for those who follow the akhada’s strict regimen.

“Wrestling matches in the mud can go on for an hour or two. It’s much slower. Now, all international meets are on mats, and that is far more technical. There are proper costumes, shoes and you get points. You are given warnings. There are a lot more rules,” he says.

After the medal was won, says Satpal, he has been getting calls from all over India. “Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Punjab — there are so many who want me to take them into my akhada. The phone has not stopped ringing. But my aim now is to make sure we win 18 out of 21 golds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.”

Satpal’s akhada continues to stand tall and, even in the face of changing times, little recognition and scarce facilities, they have a rare Olympic medal to call their own.

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