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Winner nearly quit

India's first Greco-Roman world medalist Sandeep Yadav almost left sport two months ago

Just two months ago,Sandeep Yadav had thrown in the towel. He had had enough of the early morning runs,the endless gym sessions and the hours of grappling at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Mumbai Centre. His hard work at the camp had earned him the reputation of the strongest wrestler there but that was hardly any consolation.

Sandeep was one of country’s brightest young wrestlers in the Greco-Roman category,winning almost all national and a few international age-group tournaments. But he failed to live up to the early promise and was struggling to break into the national team,let alone win a medal. He had lost the psychological battle.

Enter Narsingh Yadav and Jagmal Singh. The duo talked Yadav out of the thought of quitting,and virtually brainwashed him into thinking like an athlete again – Narsingh as friend and confidante and Jagmal as coach and taskmaster.

“He was very upset because he did not have any medal to show for all the hard work he had put in all these years. There was no one to look up to as well. He kept on saying that Indian wrestlers hardly win medals in Asia so the World Championship was a long shot,” says Jagmal.

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Narsingh adds: “He had always been upset about not being able to win a medal at the international level. He yearned for it. We told him to give these World Championships a shot and then talk about his future.”

The ‘future talks’ when Sandeep returns home on Tuesday will now revolve around converting bronze into gold instead of his quitting the sport. On Sunday,the 25-year-old grappler made history when he became the first Indian wrestler in more than a decade to win a medal at the World Championships in the Greco-Roman category.

No one expected the medal. Even Jagmal,who has been coaching Sandeep for close to 11 years,didn’t see it coming. “He had a lot of potential but confidence has always been an issue. But as they say,good things happen when you least expect it,” he says.

The friendship between Sandeep and Narsingh goes back a long way. Their fathers worked together as milkmen and have lived together in a tiny chawl in Jogeshwari,a western Mumbai suburb,for more than a decade. Sandeep’s father died in 1998 and since then,his brother Sanjay,a ticket collector with Central Railway,has taken care of his basic necessities.

Man of steel

Jagmal describes him as a ‘lohpurush’ or a man of steel. “You’ll not find any fat on his body… just muscle. He is one of the hardest working wrestlers here. Apart from the usual stuff the wrestlers do,like training bouts and gym sessions,he does rope-climbing,around 30 repetitions and then lifts his training partner,who is around 80kg,and runs from one end to the other. That makes his upper body very strong,” he says.

Indian wrestling has had its fair share of glory in the the last few years and the three medals at the Worlds are a testimony to the progress the country has made. However,most of that has been in freestyle wrestling,the more popular form of the sport from both the viewers’ and wrestlers’ point of view.

Like most wrestlers,Yadav too began in freestyle but shifted to Greco-Roman on the insistence of Jagmal early in his career. His effort,he hopes,will have a spiralling effect on the popularity of the unfancied category.

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“Greco-Roman is often considered boring and unattractive. More importantly,all the tournaments with hefty prize money are freestyle events – be it Hind Kesari or Punjab Kesari. So the motivation to take up freestyle wrestling is much more. The fact that we didn’t have a medal winner in Greco-Roman made matters worse,” Jagmal says. “This is a huge morale-booster,though. No one can now say we haven’t a medal at the World Championships (in Greco-Roman). Hopefully,this form of wrestling will gain momentum now.”