Former junior national medalist Lakhwinder Singh likes to call his prodigy a desi athlete or son of the soil. Singh, a discus thrower initially, trained as a wrestler but earned his spurs as an athlete. He continued to train in the mud pits even after he started hurling the two kilogram disc. He has remained a life-long fan of pehalwani.
So it was no surprise when Lakhwinder ensured that a young Abhay Gupta prepared mud pits, ran on fields instead of a treadmill or a synthetic track and followed the drills of wrestlers. Like all aspiring pehalwans, Abhay also binged on badam and doodh. When Abhay broke the Asian Youth Championships record and won the gold in June, Lakhwinder says it was a testament to the desi method.
“When I started off training under Lakhwinder sir, I used to follow the exercise and diet plan of pehalwans. My father was a pehalwan too so as a young boy the sport fascinated me,” Abhay said.
He got hooked to wrestling when he saw reruns of wrestling bouts from the Sydney Olympics. But Lakhwinder knew Abhay would hit a dead end if he pursued wrestling. Naraingarh, a one-hour drive from district headquarters Ambala, did have a prominent akhada and while kushti would have earned Abhay prize money and made him a local hero, Lakhwinder felt it would have been difficult for him to make the transition to the mat and earn nation-wide recognition.
“There were no facilities which would enable him to become a mat wrestler in Naraingarh. That is why I encouraged him to start throwing. Even I was a wrestler but I eventually became an athlete,” Lakhwinder says. The path he chose seemed to be the right one.
At the National Stadium in Bangkok, Abhay — now standing at six feet and two inches — registered a distance of 56.47 metres in his second throw to break the previous record of 53.06 in the name of Iranian Sajjad Hassen. He is quick to point that his performance at the Asian youth event is not his personal best.
At the national youth championships in April in Hyderabad, he won gold with a throw of 58.80. At the state trails in February he had done even better — 62.80. The drop in performance is due to the fact that he has not been training for the past three months because of a lower-back injury. Lakhwinder calls it a ‘throwers injury’ and believes it is only a matter of time before the pain subsides. But Abhay is taking no chances and decided to consult a doctor who asked him to undergo an MRI.
“I was trying to rest as much as possible because the moment I started training or throwing my lower back would start paining. Moreover, I had two big competitions coming up so I didn’t want to miss them because of the injury. At Bangkok, my first attempt was a ‘stand’ throw. I just wanted to see how my back was holding up. It was painful but when you are competing at the Asian level, you just cannot pull out of the event. I just shut out the pain and gave it my best,” Abhay says.
Abhay can’t afford to rest now but he has to be careful not to strain his back too. The doctor has advised him rest but he has two important meets coming up — the World Youth Champions in Kenya and the Commonwealth Youth Championship in Bahamas, both in July with just a three-day break in between.
“Once these two competitions are over, I will rest my back. Now I have to keep throwing in practice and hope my back holds good for another month and a half,” says Abhay, who has joined the national camp in Sonepat.
Coach Lakhwinder is not losing sleep over the injury. “These are the kind of injuries all throwers will face but Abhay has natural strength. He is not your typical thrower, who has spend hours in the gymnasium, which leads to muscles getting inflexible and injury-prone. You may find him in the gym on and off but he has a strong foundation based on wrestling drills, which has made him strong but also flexible.”