He was just three bouts away from an Olympic berth. But all Sumit Malik could think of was to find a bed and sleep. Malik was in Mongolia this time last year for the Olympic qualifiers. He’d lost in the qualification round but remained in contention for a Rio spot via the repechage rounds. However, his back was broken. He wasn’t able to stand, let alone bend and fight for six minutes.
He looked for his coach. Unable to find him, Malik dragged himself out of the venue, somehow managed to sit on the bus that ferried the athletes to the hotel and slept in his room. Livid, the federation suspended Malik and did not allow him to compete in the remaining qualifying tournaments. The worst, though, was still to come. Malik had been ignoring a back injury for quite some time. Now, the condition had worsened. Don’t wrestle again if you want to walk again, the doctor warned him. In a tiny hospital room with whitewashed walls and one bed, Malik’s career looked done. And he’d just turned 22. “But I knew I could do better, it wouldn’t end like that,” Malik says.
So he turned to someone who’s battled several such injuries. Malik is a product of Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium’s wrestling academy. Desperate, he turned to the academy’s most famous student for help. Sushil Kumar was himself involved in an ugly selection saga with Narsingh Yadav. But there was no way Sushil Kumar would turn him down. “He had faith in me. That motivated me to work harder,” Malik says. A year later, on Sunday, Malik repaid that faith by winning the silver medal in the 125kg freestyle class of the Asian Championships. Not many had expected a medal from India on the final day of the Championships. The best bet was in the 70kg but Vinod Kumar was humbled 12-2 by Japan’s Momojiro Nakamura. In the 61kg class, Harphool was controversially beaten by another Japanese wrestler and Rio Games silver medallist Rei Higuchi.
Japanese wrestlers have been a thorn in India’s flesh here but Malik began with a convincing win over one of them. The 6-3 win over Taiki Yamamoto in the quarterfinals was followed by a 7-2 thrashing of Farkhod Anakulov of Tajikistan in the semifinals. However, he lost to Iran’s Yadollah Mohammadkazemi Mohebi 6-2 in the final. But Malik was happy just to be back on the mat. A year ago, it looked an impossible scenario. “He had a slipped disc and because of his weight (108kg), the recovery was tougher,” says Satpal Singh, the chief coach of the Chhatrasal wrestling academy.
The back injury cost him a lot — Rs 50 lakh to be precise, as his fellow wrestlers joke. Like several other heavyweight wrestlers, Malik fights several mitti dangals throughout the year. Just a week ago, he’d won the Hind Kesari title in Pune.
However, just a month before he fled the wrestling arena in Mongolia, Malik’s back injury cost him another bout. The Bharat Kesari Dangal offered the winner individual prize money of Rs 1 crore. Malik qualified for the title bout, where he faced Mausam Khatri.
“It was a very close match but Sumit’s back constantly hurt him. That eventually led to his defeat,” Malik’s friend and training partner Praveen says. Malik lost the bout 1-0 but still took home Rs 50 lakh. “Nuksan ho gaya bhai ka,” Praveen laughs. Malik bought himself a flat in Delhi’s Rohini and a car. But he wasn’t able to use any of those luxuries until recently.
Malik, who lost his father as a child, has stayed at the Chhatrasal with other wrestlers of the academy since he was 13. Sushil would often train alongside him but once he approached the twice Olympic medallist to prepare him for his comeback, there was little time for rest. Training would begin at 4 in the morning and go on for four hours. After some rest, he would be back again at 5pm and train till 8 in the night. Those weren’t even the toughest sessions.
“At times, Sushil would come at 11pm and call him to train,” Praveen, who stays with Malik at Chhatrasal Stadium, says. The late night sessions used to be when Sushil would spar with Malik. It worked perfectly for both – Sushil’s agility made Malik quick and grappling with a heavyweight was ideal for Sushil as well.
Those sessions have culminated in him winning his biggest international medal till date. “We were expecting gold from him,” Satpal says. “But a year ago, his career looked over. So we will gladly take this.”