Supporting Cast

Friends,family,doctors. The Sunday Express profiles the people behind India’s Olympic medallists

Written by The Sunday Express | Published: August 26, 2012 1:46:32 am

‘When she wins,I feel I have won as well’

Onler Kom-Boxer Mary Kom’s husband


A whirlwind of felicitations and receptions followed Mary Kom the moment she arrived in Delhi after winning her Olympic bronze. Still jetlagged after her early morning arrival from London,she struggled through the round of interviews. Husband Onler,who had arrived by the same flight,was equally tired,though not the couple’s four-year-old twins Rengpa and Nainai. The boys are boisterous and want to play. It took all of Onler’s patience to keep up with them. “If I leave them unattended,Mary will worry and right now,she is doing an equally tough job. I need to support her,” he says.

Onler,38,is of course more than a hands-on father to the kids while Mary is away. Over the last 11 years that they have been together,the man behind Mary Kom has been a mentor,motivator and manager to her. “This bronze would not have been possible without Onler,” says Mary,29.

The two first met in 2001 in Delhi. Onler was the president of the Kom student community and wanted to meet Mary,whose boxing exploits were already well known in Manipur. “I only saw her as a friend as first because I was many years older to her,” he says. “I realised that she faced a lot of difficulties as a single woman travelling to various places for competitions and even for training. I would travel along with her and that was how we bonded.”

The turning point in their relationship came in 2005 when just before she was to travel to a tournament in Thailand,Mary lost her passport. Onler pulled as many strings as he could and arranged for a replacement. “I realised then that there had to be some reason why I was putting in so much effort. It was then that I proposed marriage. She was so surprised that she took a couple of weeks but eventually,she agreed,” he smiles.

Since then,the road hasn’t been a smooth one,Onler admits. Their decision to marry drew sniggers. “People said now that she is planning to get married,her career will suffer,” Onler recalls. However,the lowest point was when gunmen shot dead Onler’s father,seemingly without motive,on Christmas day in 2006. “I was devastated,and Mary wanted to leave boxing because there was a rumour that the killers were jealous of Mary’s success. But I insisted she continue. Because the best way to respond to hate is to live successfully,” he says.

The balm to the pain came a few weeks after the funeral when Mary learnt that she was pregnant with twins. “My father had a twin and I felt Rengpa and Nainai were nothing short of a miracle,” says Onler.

While Mary took a year-long layoff after the birth of the twins,Onler has largely cared for them since Mary’s career took off. “I’ve got up at night to make their food and calm them when they were crying and have changed more nappies than I ever want to. But I needed to do all of this so that Mary could train undisturbed,” he says.

It isn’t as if Onler never had his own ambitions. A law student,he was preparing for the civil services in Delhi when he met Mary. “But slowly,I realised that life had other plans for me. It was predestined that Mary was to come into my life and that I would marry her. My ambition is now to help Mary be all that she can be. When she has a bad bout,I get very tense and when she wins,I feel I have won as well,” he says.

There is,of course,one thing he says he wishes he could change about Mary. “In the time we have been together,we have never travelled together just for fun. It has always been for some competition or some training. I would really like it if we could take a holiday together,” he says.

‘We focused on Saina’s recovery and rehabilitation’

Kiran Challagundla-Chief physiotherapist,Indian badminton team

Nihal Koshie

Before and after a game,India’s top badminton players,including London Olympics bronze medallist Saina Nehwal,seek out Dr Kiran Challagundla,the chief physiotherapist of the national team and of the Gopichand Badminton Academy in Hyderabad. Kiran has a Masters in orthopaedics,sports and manual physiotherapy and began his career with Australian Rules Football second-division team,the Dolphins,in Adelaide,after which he joined the Indian Premier League’s (IPL) Deccan Chargers in 2008.

It was following the inaugural season of IPL that Kiran received a call from Pullela Gopichand. The switch from cricket to badminton required Kiran to start afresh,but four years on,it has been a rewarding journey.

“When I started working with badminton players,their fitness levels weren’t up there with the best in the world. Initially,if a player got injured or had a sore muscle,we didn’t know for certain how to prevent a particular injury or even why it had occurred in the first place. During my first four months with the national team,I only observed the training methods and styles of the players in order to come to grips with the pressure the sport puts on the muscles and joints of the players. Later,I got involved in fitness,diet,recovery,rehabilitation,manual therapy and injury prevention,” says Kiran.

Along with Gopichand,he ensures that each player has a specialised training schedule. “In 2008,Saina Nehwal would have had a schedule that was 90 per cent similar to the others. Now she has a schedule that is at least 40 per cent different from what other players do. Each player has to be given specialised attention,” says Kiran,33.

At the Super Series and the Grand Prix tournaments,Kiran has 18-hour days as some players have matches in the morning while others are on court close to midnight. His job also involves taping up joints,knees and ankles of the players before matches,ensuring the muscles are not sore,handing out training schedules and diet charts.

Saina credits Kiran for keeping her fit. “My coach Gopichand and physio Kiran take care of me. Kiran ensures that I am in great shape before,during and after a tournament. Kiran has played a big role in making me a champion,” says Saina.

In late 2010,Saina was suffering from a right-ankle injury that flared up at the Hong Kong Open final but this period coincided with the time when Kiran was out of a contract. “As soon as I got back,we focused on Saina’s recovery and rehabilitation. The great thing about Saina is that she puts in a lot of effort into all aspects of her game and so one is rewarded for the hard work too.”

‘My knowledge of sports helped him choose his career’

Amarjit Narang-Shooter Gagan Narang’s mother

Sreenivas Janyala

If you were to ask Gagan Narang where he gets his concentration from,he is likely to point towards his mother,Amarjit Narang. The steely lady who accepted Gagan’s school principal’s advice and prodded her son to take up shooting,is focused on his shooting career,his scores and upcoming events. As she reels off Gagan’s top scores at a German rifle shooting club (400 of 400) and a World Cup final where he shot 600 of 600,you realise it’s her own interest in sports that has shaped Gagan’s sporting career.

“I used to participate in sports in Roorkee University. Even after I started working,I used to play table tennis and badminton. It helped that I knew about sports and more importantly,it helped us decide whether he had the ability to take up shooting as a career. Like all parents,we had told him to pay more attention to his studies than to sports. We wanted him to become an engineer. To encourage him to take up sports,that too rifle shooting,as a career was a radical change,’’ she says.

“He used to play TT,badminton,tennis and cricket but we recognised that shooting was his passion. It was a sport few cared for in those days but as they say,he found his calling and we decided to back him. Still,I insisted he complete his graduation,which he has,’’ says Amarjit.

Working in the Military Engineering Services of the Ministry of Defence,it was Amarjit who sought out all the firing ranges available in the city,including the NCC ground,where her son could practise. Gagan was already outgrowing the short 10-m practice range at a private club where he had joined.

In a room filled with medals and trophies at their home in Begumpet,Hyderabad,Amarjit says,“After returning from London,he has spent only two days at home with us. In October,he will again go to Bangkok for the World Cup.’’

“At the Athens Olympics,he missed a shot and looked back at where we were sitting. When I asked why he had looked back,he said he wanted to see how we had reacted to his bad shot. Our presence there was playing on his mind. We decided then that we will never go to any of the international competitions. His mind should be free to concentrate on the game,not on us. That is also why we decided not to go London this time though we were sure he would win a medal,’’ she says.

Gagan’s father B S Narang recalls how in 1999-2000 they had to sell a piece of land to buy a second-hand imported rifle for Gagan,who was beginning to show a lot of promise. “To compete internationally and to have that cutting edge,you need an imported rifle,not the Ordnance Factory rifle that he was using until then. We sold our plot and gathered some more money and finally bought the imported rifle. Since then,we have not looked back. Gagan got a medal at the Czech junior international championship. Still,it took another four years before he could win a gold medal at the Afro-Asian Games held in Hyderabad,’’ says Amarjit.

She remembers the names of manufacturers of all the rifles that Gagan has used so far,including a German Walther and the Swiss rifle he now uses. Gagan will now participate in the ISSF World Cup final to be held in Bangkok from October 22. As an Olympic medal winner,he qualifies automatically. His mother has already worked out who all Gagan would be competing against.

‘In London,I became Sushil’s sparring partner’

Amarjit Solanki-Wrestler Sushil Kumar’ brother


This Olympics,Sushil Kumar’s younger brother Amarjit Solanki had an added responsibility. Apart from the usual chores that Amarjit does for the champion grappler,he was asked to take up another important job: becoming Sushil’s sparring partner.

Back in India,when the training camp is on,Amarjit’s day often starts as early as 4 a.m. with Sushil gearing up for his morning practice. From screening phone calls—only calls from Sushil’s guru and now father-in-law Satpal,coaches Ramphal Mann and Yasvir,or from the family get through—to grinding almonds twice a day for thandai,Amarjit provides his elder brother whatever he needs. He even cooks fresh vegetables for Sushil.

Sushil makes sure he has Amarjit by his side whenever he travels. “Family plays a very important role in a wrestler’s life. I can leave everything on Amarjit and train. Without his and my family’s backing,it would be very tough to focus,” says Sushil.

In London,Amarjit was not required to rustle up a thandai or cook a meal,but he still had a lot on his plate. Since he was not part of the travelling party that had accreditation and thus an assured stay at the Titan Towers at the Stratford-based Games Village,the 26-year-old,along with Sushil’s other trusted lieutenant,physiotherapist Arvinder Pal Singh,would take the Tube from Hounslow to the Village,a journey that would take a little over an hour-and-a-half in the morning. To make it in time—the first visitors could enter the athletes’ living quarters at nine—their day always started early.

Once at the village,he would assist Sushil in his training and weight reduction before the weigh-ins prior to the bouts.

“You will never get a sparring partner at the Olympics. Only participants are allowed to stay in the Village so I had to become his sparring partner. There was nobody else—other wrestlers were busy preparing for their bouts and the coaches were busy with them,” says Amarjit,who also takes care of Sushil’s dietary and off-the mat requirements.

What about actually trying out moves on his elder brother?

“I had no problems in adjusting. I am Sushil’s brother. I know what he needs. Though I am not a trained wrestler,I have been with him for the last ten years. Mujhe daav lagane aate hain,” says Amarijit.

‘We first met at Chhatrasal as teenagers’

Rajesh Kumar-Wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt’s friend


Their birthdays are just a few months apart but Rajesh Kumar,28,looks at his friend Yogeshwar Dutt,29,like a proud,doting parent. As the media crowds around his long-time akhada mate,now an Olympic hero,Rajesh,also a wrestler,whose partially paralytic leg is a reminder of an old and ugly bout injury,keeps a distance from the commotion.

Yogeshwar is back home at Bhainswal Kalan village after winning a bronze at London. Ask Rajesh about Yogeshwar’s right eye,famously swollen after the first bout at London,and the permanently pasted smile on his face gets stretched. “Woh chot kuch nahi thi,ek baar bhaisaab ne isse bhi bahut badi aankh ki takleef seh li thi (This injury is nothing. Once he suffered a much more serious eye ailment),” he says.

Rajesh and Yogeshwar go back a long way—the two met as teenagers at Chhatrasal. Growing up together at Guru Satpal’s Chhatrasal akhada,Rajesh once spilled boiling milk on Yogeshwar’s eyes. Yogeshwar was rushed to a hospital and Rajesh spent many days worrying about his friend’s eye.

“I was very relieved when Yogeshwar was back at the akhada after 10 days in hospital. He took the pain in his stride. He is very strong,nothing can keep him down,” says Rajesh. The bond between the two grew even stronger after the incident with Rajesh becoming over-protective about Yogeshwar. And once Yogeshwar started showing signs of becoming a world beater,his room partner,whose career wasn’t seeing the desired spike,became his Man Friday. Apart from helping him with pre-bout strategy,Rajesh would handle phone calls,filter visitors,crush dry fruits for his thandai and cook for him. Massaging Yogeshwar’s tired limbs after an exhausting training session was another of Rajesh’s self-assigned tasks.

Yogeshwar’s long,tight bear-hug to his old pal at the airport,on his return from London,was the picture of a man expressing his overwhelming gratitude. “Without him,I wouldn’t have reached here. Rajesh knows my game. In case you want to defeat me,he knows all my weakness,” says Yogeshwar as Rajesh’s smile stretches further.

‘I advised him to enroll for the weapons training programme’

Banku Ram Sharma-Shooter Vijay Kumar’s father

Nitin Sharma

As a retired subedar from the Dogra Regiment,Banku Ram Sharma always wanted his son Vijay Kumar Sharma to join the Indian Army. But a young Vijay would spend his time in school keenly observing automobiles and talking all things mechanical with students from the nearby Technical Institute. When he was 15,his father asked him to attend an army recruitment rally in Faizabad. “He was always interested in doing mechanical engineering. He was a sharp youngster and he realised that he needed to earn. I was posted in Delhi in 2001 when we saw an ad in a newspaper about the Faizabad rally. Of the 15,000 candidates,he was one of the fastest in the races. He joined as a recruit and when he became a jawan in 2003,he called me to say,“Papa,I will become a Subedar like you some day”,” says Banku Ram,who retired in January 2003.

For the first three years,Vijay’s main concern was to save money and send it to his family in Himachal’s Harsaur village—he earned Rs 3,500 then. It was during this time that he was inducted into the army’s weapons training programme. A hesitant Vijay sought his father’s advice before agreeing to undergo the training. In the following few years,Vijay had to often spend money on ammunition for extra practice at the ranges and would end up seeking his father’s help. “I remember his first salary was Rs 3,500. Sometimes he would get frustrated but I would keep reminding him of his aim of becoming a subedar. Later,when he was enrolled in the ammunition training programme,he would often seek money from me. I knew it was for his good and we never complained,” says Banku Ram.

In 2005,Vijay won his first international medal—a bronze—at the Asian Shooting Championship. The first time his family saw him in action on television was during the Melbourne Commonwealth Games in 2006. He had looked forward to the Beijing Olympics but fell ill during the trials and had to miss the Games. “I fell ill just before the trials. It was a low moment in my career and my father had then come and spent a few days with me. He took care of me and even cooked for me. He had wanted to see me at the Olympics but since I had to miss the Games,my father told me to concentrate on the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. When I won three gold medals in CWG 2010,my family came to meet me in Delhi. They wanted to see my medals and my father took them home. He is the one who displays them on shelves. He knows more about my medals than even I do,” says Vijay,26.

After his Commonwealth Games golds,the Central government awarded him Rs 41 lakh. He spent all the money renovating the family home. “He gave the cheques to me and said he wanted to renovate our home. He is a very simple guy and wants to see his brother and cousins study well. We got six rooms built and it’s all due to him,” says Banku Ram.

With the shooter getting more than Rs 2 crore as reward for his London Olympics silver,Banku Ram knows where Vijay will spend the money. “When his sister got married,Vijay was busy practising and could come home only for a few days. My sister’s daughters are yet to be married and Vijay says he will make all the arrangements for their weddings,” says Banku Ram.

On his visits home,Vijay spends much of his time meditating or playing video games. “I know what it takes to be a shooter. He speaks little and we understand. He’s always calm and has never brought his pistol home. He will soon go back and settle in his army barrack in MHOW. But I am happy that he has surpassed me. He has become a Subedar Major,” says Banku Ram.

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