Amit Kumar Dahiya remains casual as he’s called up on stage to stand beside a group of wrestlers in a posh Mumbai hotel. His reputation precedes him, but for the 24-year-old, a short introduction is in order. The word ‘Olympian’ sets him apart from his peers.
Back at the 2012 London Games, the then 18-year-old became India’s youngest wrestler to compete at the Olympics. The promise of a bright future held true, as he helped himself to a World Championship silver medal a year later, and raced to gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It was however, the last medal he’d win on the international stage, as he’d fade away because of a right knee injury in 2016.
He’s lived in relative wrestling obscurity since then, but now he’s back. At the upcoming Maharashtra Kushti League — a state-level franchise-based venture — Dahiya is the biggest name to feature. Yet for a player of a far higher stature, this is an ideal platform for finding his way back up.
“It’s been two years (since the injury) and I’ve been losing bouts and trials ever since,” he says. “Training main pata nahi lagta jo kushti main lagta hai. (One doesn’t find out in training what one does in bouts) Now I’ll get to know how my training has been going and what I need to work on.”
The last big event Dahiya was part of was the 2015 World Championships in Las Vegas. Since then, participation in quality international events has been a rarity. But it’s not that he had been entirely available either. Once he recovered in December 2016, there was always uncertainty about how his body would hold up. “I had plenty of rest and so I got back to training. Then the knee would hurt again. Then I’d recover and train, and the pain was back,” he says. “I was getting demoralised, to the point when I thought, ‘yaar, main chhod du wrestling’ (Man, I should leave wrestling).”
Meanwhile, his hold on the 57 kg category had been broken, as the likes of Sandeep Tomar (who competed at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2017 World Championships) and Rahul Aware (who has qualified for the Commonwealth Games in April) have overtaken the Sonepat native.
Dahiya maintains however, that he isn’t out of contention. His priority after getting back was shedding the weight he had put on during the recovery phase. “I had gone up to 70 kg and had to lose 13 kg,” he says, sheepishly. Training began, but there was always a fear of over-exerting the knee. And so the grappler focused more on building upper body strength than on the strength in his legs. “I focused on the upper body because the lower body wasn’t getting injured. Now I don’t need to work more on the lower body to get that balance right,” he says.
At the same time, his speed has gone down. “My body has changed,” he says. “The upper body strength has gone up, but speed has reduced. I’ve seen the old videos and compared it with the new ones. Now I have to train less for power but more for speed.”
There’s also a target now, the Asian Games in August. In fact, Dahiya asserts that his participation in the state-level event is to gauge his performances in preparation for the trials. The competition with Aware and Tomar has become fierce, but there is a sense of confidence steadily creeping in. “New boys have come in and they think that I’m old and they can tire me out. Earlier, I used to tire them out. But I have to keep it in my mind that I’m just 24 and have a long way to go.” Dahiya stands at only 5-feet-1, but is a man destined for bigger things. At the Maharashtra Kushti League, he’s taking a step down, but only to push back up again. At the same time, he feels the burden of expectations has been lifted from his shoulders.
He remembers a time when people would talk behind his back, stating how his career was over after the injury. But now there are no expectations. “Abhi khul ke khel sakte hai” (Now I can play without any pressure).