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Youngsters dominating the ring

In the fourth and final story in the series on India’s young sportsperson, Patriot takes a look at the future stars of the Indian wrestling scene

THE LATEST edition of Asian Wrestling Championships held in New Delhi, that ended on 22 February, saw India notch up a record tally of 20 medals across all three formats. The event opened with Greco Roman competitions where Sunil Kumar ended the hosts’ 27-year wait for a gold medal. Arjun Halakurki (55 kg), Ashu (67 kg), Aditya Kundu (72 kg), and Hardeep (97 kg) won a bronze medal each respectively as India recorded their best-ever performance at the competition in the Greco Roman category.

Records were broken in the women’s category too as the Indian contingent ended the Championships with eight medals — three gold, two silver and three bronze which was the best ever tally in the Asian Championships ever for India.

Among men, Ravi Dahiya (57 kg) was the sole gold medallist for India in the freestyle category. Four silvers and two bronzes in the men’s freestyle category rounded off the campaign for the hosts who finished second on the team charts, behind Iran. All in all, India had a historic run at one of the most prestigious and tough competitions in the world.

But this was also the year that saw the fall from grace of top wrestling superstars like Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia — both of whom went home without a single podium finish throughout the year. In fact, Malik was beaten twice, shockingly by an unknown 20-year old wrestler named Sonam Malik in both their national bouts.

What is heartening to see that in spite of the dull phase of India’s so-called wrestling stars, the country still managed to have one of its most stellar years in the sport, thanks to the rising stars on the scene.

Here, we take a look at some of the young wrestling superstars who could make a splash and emerge as the next big thing in the Indian wrestling scene.

DEEPAK PUNIA

The year 2019 was well and truly the unearthing of young grappler Deepak Punia. He became the first Indian in 18 years to win a junior World Championships title in August this year, but that was just the start of what was to be a stellar season. Deepak came very close to winning India’s first gold medal at the senior World Championships in Nur Sultan, but an ankle injury forced him to forfeit the final.

The youngster nevertheless won India’s only silver at the World Championships, as well as claiming that elusive Olympic quota in the 86-kg category. Deepak was named junior wrestler of the year for his brilliant showings this season, but his seamless transition to the senior level is what keeps India’s sporting patrons optimistic of medals in wrestling in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Indian wrestling has been on the rise in 2019, with their established names delivering the goods when it mattered, while many emerging stars have made their mark, as shown by the dominant display at the South Asian Games. The grapplers seem to have peaked at the right time, with just a few months now left ahead of the Olympics of 2020.

PINKI

At the recently concluded Yasar Dogu international wrestling championships in Turkey, among the hordes of famous female Indian wrestlers like Sakshi Malik and the Phogat sisters, only one girl managed to clinch a gold – and that was Pinki. She still is quite an unknown quantity in the wrestling world.

SAJAN BHANWALA

No Indian wrestler has achieved the feat of winning two consecutive medals at World Championships in Greco-Roman until Sajan. He was a bronze medallist in the previous world championships in Finland and in Trnava, he bagged a silver medal. A resident of Kasandi village in Sonepat district, Sajan has been India’s most successful young wrestler in recent times, winning the Junior Asian Championships as well.

NAVEEN KUMAR

Hailing from Sisai village near Hisar, Naveen is one of the most promising young wrestlers from the famous Chhatrasal Stadium in New Delhi.

A former cadet world championship medallist and junior Asian silver medallist, Naveen has time and again pulled off upsets at both national and international level. At the 2017 senior nationals, he defeated national champ Sandeep Tomar and in Trnava, he defeated defending champ Daton Fix of USA to enter the final. But he could not go past Russia’s Akhmed Idrisov in the final, thus earning the silver medal in the World Sub Junior wrestling championships.

POOJA DHANDA

On the night of 23 October 2018, when most of India was fast asleep, a girl from a small village near Hisar, Haryana made the nation proud 6,000 km away in Budapest. Pooja Dhanda, by claiming a bronze medal at the World Wrestling Championships, became the first Indian woman in six years, and fourth overall, to claim a medal in the competition. She was also one of the two medalists there, the other being Bajrang Punia.

Previously, she had won silver medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the Youth Olympic Games, in addition to clinching medals in the Asian Wrestling Championships in 2014 and the World Indoor and Martial Arts Games in 2015.

“The World Championship victory is now a thing of the past, as I look to achieve more laurels for India. Bringing home a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is now my ultimate goal, and I hope that the colour of the medal changes from bronze to gold”, she said in an exclusive chat with Patriot in 2018.

RAHUL AWARE

The breakout star of Indian wrestling in 2018 was Rahul Aware, with solid performances at the Asian Games, and a gold at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. The man from a drought-hit village in Maharashtra is one of the leading men to look forward to in this year’s competition, having been roped in by the Sultans for Rs 10 crore.

Even though he’s very lean, Rahul possesses tremendous strength wherein he can suplex a man larger than his size, as was evident in his gold medal bout in the CWG against Canadian wrestler Takahasi.

 

MANSI AHLAWAT

Born into a wrestling family, Mansi Ahlawat has trained her whole life at the Sir Chhotu Ram Akhada in Delhi. In her first international event, the sub-junior world wrestling championships in Trnava, Slovakia, she had a podium finish as she won the bronze medal in the 57-kg category.

She also claimed silver in the 57-kg category in women’s freestyle in the Junior Asian Wrestling Championships at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex. She reached the final but lost to Japan’s Akie Hania 0-10.

RAVI KUMAR DAHIYA

Even as all medal hopes lie on Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia in the upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympics, another grappler from India has been making silent waves in the circuit in the recent past. Ravi Kumar Dahiya, competing in the 57 kg weight division, won his first Asian Championship title when he defeated Hikmatullo Vohidov of Tajikistan by technical superiority 10-0 in the summit clash in New Delhi, even as Punia and Phogat failed to return with the yellow metal.

Dahiya had a stellar run in the Asian Championships en route his gold, beating 2017 world champion Yuki Takahashi of Japan 14-5 before he got the better of Mongolia’s Tugs Batjargal 6-3. In the semis, the Indian defeated Nurislam Sanayev 7-2 to emerge as a dark horse in the Olympics.