Ashish Kumar doesn't look his effervescent self. He has been under the weather for a couple of days and the felicitation ceremonies after the Guangzhou Games have left him jaded.
But a peek into the Boys' High School gymnastics hall, where he came as a four-year-old in 1994, enlivens him. He has traveled the world, but this place is closest to his heart.
Even though the equipment at the academy has outlived its utility by years and the paraphernalia is best moved to a junkyard, this is still the place where he wants to train and shape his Olympic dreams. "I haven't known a place more snug than this despite training for months abroad. I feel this is the time the government can chip in and make this academy world class.
"Mishra sir has been running this academy for years with whatever meagre resources he has. We cannot afford to import any costly equipment," says the champion, who has become a household name in Allahabad and a "true son of the soil".
With the London Olympic Games qualifiers (in Japan) 10 months away, he sounds concerned. "Of what use is the brand new equipment lying in the IG stadium in Delhi, when it cannot be utilized by us," he rues even as his attention is drawn by hordes of tiny-tots who want to train with him. "No one knows destiny, but I want to win an Olympic medal and the government can help by giving one set of equipment to our nursery," says the boy, before adding that his medals at the CWG and Asian Games have already brought about a revolution in the city.
Hailing from a middle-class family, he knows the difficulties his folks faced in trying to procure equipment. "I had no proper shoes, no grips and trained barefoot. Now, I have an imported grip (worth R 5,000) and shoes (worth Rs 3,000), but how many can afford them?
"Our coaches ensured we didn't suffer for lack of equipment. DK Rathore sir (coach) was always at hand to help. I remember him coming to my house and taking me to the academy in the attire I was in. Such is their dedication that they never let go of a talented player." Things haven't changed. The same dedication drives this centre.
The day Ashish landed in Allahabad, the trainees had arranged a gala welcome. "With DJs belting out the latest numbers and thousands lining up the road leading to the centre, it was a memorable homecoming...I wish, I could bring them an Olympic medal too."