At a talim (akhada) on the outskirts of Pune, a large group of wrestlers had gathered around a television set. Minutes later, the entire contingent — around 30 — burst into tears. “Sabse zyada to Kaka Pawar sahib roye,” says pehelwan Uday Shirke about the coach. The group had tuned into the 57kg men’s freestyle wrestling final, where their own Rahul Aware was to compete for the gold medal.
Never before in his career has the 26-year-old been a part of an Indian team at a multi-sport event. On Thursday, he broke that streak and showed for it by winning gold at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
That yellow medal, for Aware’s coach Pawar, wasn’t just a symbol of a victory at a tournament. It represented the moment that Aware would bring back the prosperity the youngster’s family had once enjoyed when his father, Bala, was a well-known wrestler in Maharashtra.
Rahul grew up in Patoda, a village in the drought-stricken district of Beed, to parents who own a two-acre farm. His early childhood was a struggle, as the family had to live off the support of Bala and Pawar’s old coach, legendary Harishchandra Birajdar. “Bala would struggle to make ends meet in those days,” says Pawar, who grew up with Bala and remains a close family friend. “But Harishchandra would go to MLAs, he’d go to sugarcane factory owners to collect money and support Bala.”
In his prime, Bala was an avid wrestler who had won 15 state championships. His only flaw was that he competed on mitti rather than the mat, required for international wrestling.
“In Maharashtra, we have lots of talent, but they wrestle only in mud,” Pawar says. “They make lots of money after each dangal and are happy with that. But, like with Bala, once their career is over, they don’t have a livelihood.”
In his elder son Rahul, the senior Aware sought to make amends. When he was just 10, Rahul was sent to Pune to train under the tutelage of Birajdar, a gold medallist at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. That’s the first time Pawar — who competed for India at the 1998 Asian Games — met Rahul.
‘Disciplined and calm’
“He was always very disciplined and calm,” he says. “I think it’s because of the hardships he faced when he was a boy. He knew wrestling was the only way he could help his family. So he took it very seriously.”
When Birajdar passed away in 2011, Pawar, who had set up his own talim at the time, took Rahul in. A few years later, he got a job in the railways and was able to support his family. But at the same time, he had his own ambitions to achieve internationally.
An aggressive grappler, he has the speed and ability to get into an attacking position even when pushed onto the back foot. “He’s a big risk-taker, but that’s what makes him such an attractive wrestler to watch,” says Jagmal Singh, former assistant national coach. “He’s very quick on his feet as well. He’s almost a complete athlete, but only lacked upper-body strength.”
Rahul did his own bit to work on that limitation. At the akhada in Pune, he choose 17-year-old Shirke, a 71kg wrestler, as his sparring partner. “Nana (Rahul’s nickname) is from a lighter category, but by training with me, he had a chance to build his strength,” says the Solapur-native.
Shirke joined Pawar’s academy six years ago, and remembers falling homesick after his first few days in Pune. That’s when he had his first real interaction with Rahul. “He told me that I’m going to be fine, that this was the right way for me to grow up and that I should focus on wrestling now, because that’s what I’m here to do,” he says. “At the time I didn’t know that Nana was actually talking about himself too.”
Shirke and Pawar watched together as Rahul dropped points early in his final bout against Canadian Steven Takahashi. “Sometimes he’s in a rush, and then he makes mistakes. That’s what happened, and that’s why he dropped four points,” says Pawar. “He wasn’t nervous, he just had to focus. Which is what he did later and won.” Rahul overcame the 4-0 deficit to win the bout 15-7 for the gold medal.
At home in Patoda, Rahul’s parents might have skipped watching the match in favour of the ‘pooja’ they had organised at the temple. But in Pune, all eyes were glued to the television. And all eyes later welled-up. “Saat samundar paar kar ke jeeta,” says Pawar. “Ye khushi ke aasun hain.”