Avtar Singh thought the line got cut when the phone call went silent. The judoka had just told his parents that he had secured a berth for the Rio Olympics before the line went blank. All set to disconnect and redial, Avtar finally heard a faint whisper of his father’s voice. “Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru,” he recalls hearing the low repetitive chant. Avtar understood the emotion. He disconnected.
Just a month earlier, the 24-year-old – who competes in the 90 kg category and became the first judoka to qualify for the quadrennial event since Akram Shah (60 kg) appeared in 2004 – had exhausted his bank account. He desperately required funds to book tickets to Turkey, where a Judo Grand Prix was scheduled to take place. His father, who works in the Punjab government health department and housewife mother knew of his plight and decided to help. “They broke all the few fixed deposits they had. It was their entire life-savings. They gave it all to me,” he remembers. “That’s why they got emotional when I got the Olympic berth.”
This wasn’t however, the first time, in any capacity, that his parents had come to his aid. Back in 2008, his local coach in the junior circles had been putting him down in favour of the other students. “I’d beat most of them black and blue during bouts, but still they’d be declared the winner. He had no faith in me. He’d actually tell people, ‘mera naak kaat dena agar Avtar Singh kabhi bada player banega,'” Avtar says, frowning. Yet noticing his son’s disappointment and desire to quit, Avtar’s father offered him words that he continues to recite to himself before every match: “Abhi game chodne ka time nahi. Abhi game khelne ka time hai.”
Hailing from the Kothe Ghurala village in the Gurdaspur district of Punjab, Avtar often found himself working in his parents’ farm. But not necessarily of his own accord. “I was quite a mischievous child. Always up to some trick or the other. So while my father was at work, my mother would give me all sorts of work around the wheat and rice fields. The idea was to tire me out,” he mention, laughing.
At the same time, his parents encouraged him to participate in the martial arts. “That too was to keep me quiet,” he adds. Yet soon he started excelling. The work on the farm did well for his now powerful shoulders and arms, and his 6-foot-4 frame has been a boon in itself on the Judo mat. So much so that the 2016 South Asian Games champion uses his long legs to trip opponents. “The inner and outer leg sweep are moves he’s perfected, though his footwork still needs some work,” explains his coach, Yashpal Solanki. “But the one thing that Avtar is second to none in is his fitness. He will never lose a match because of that, but he will tire out a stronger opponent and then beat him.”
Little match time
Avtar nonetheless, hasn’t had much match time since 2015, he’s competed in just six events. “There’s always been some problems within the federation so he never got to travel. Then there was the finances,” Solanki says. As such, the six tournaments itself proved to be crucial as he needed to drastically improve his then over 200 rank to hope for a Rio berth. “Other athletes will compete in 20-30 events to get their ranks up. Avtar got just six,” Solanki laments.
Still, Avtar reached 79th in the world, which was good enough for him to secure one of the two available continental quotas. A key reason for the rapid jump was his performances during the Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan last month, where he lost out in the semi-finals, and then defeated the favoured Iranian Saeed Moradi in the repcharge round.
Now that the ticket to Rio is set, Solanki has asked for governmental support to send the JSW aided athlete for a six week training and exposure camp to Paris. “The problem in India is that Avtar is the best in his category and there is nobody who can challenge him here. That’s why I want him to go to Paris because that’s where the other judokas who have qualified will be training. So Avtar will get a strong sparring partner,” asserts Solanki.
The question of finances arise again when talks turn towards Paris. But neither Solanki nor Avtar are bothered by it this time. He still thinks about his parents spending their entire life savings on him. But that gives him inspiration. “There’s been a lot put up for me, and it’s paid off. Aage bhi sab ho jayega,” he says.