Those ripping muscles, and massive shoulders, appear normal. But its owner isn’t too happy. “I have lost some weight,” Sushil Kumar informs. It is only to be expected after 20 days of forced rest following a bout of dengue.
It is only four days since his return to his base, at the Chhatrasal stadium. “The doctor asked me to rest for some more time, but I had already taken too much rest,” Sushil is clear even sapping illness can hold him back only for so long. “In my entire career, this was my longest break. I didn’t take a break even for my marriage,” he smiles.
There is something more important that is occupying his mind – how to combat ageing. At 30, Sushil can look back at his 15-year international career with pride. Even if he walks away from the sport now, he will still be celebrated as one of India’s greatest sporting stars. But the medallist at two successive Olympics is now chasing something elusive even to the very best – perfection. And that high, the Rio Games, is still about three years away.
But the one word that doesn’t matter to Sushil is impossible. “It was during the London Olympics qualifiers that my perception about ageing in sports changed. I fought against an Azerbaijani wrestler. As he was in his mid 30s, I thought it would be easy for me, but I had to go all-out to win. After that I was upset I had to work so hard to beat an old man. Later, he too made it to the Olympics from the next qualifier and in London, though he didn’t win a medal, he beat some of the top names.
“It was then that I realised that he is a really good wrestler and age didn’t matter. In fact, as you grow older, you tend to move towards perfection; and once you crack that code, nobody can catch you.”
HT spent a day with the champion; it was time to learn how the champion is reinventing himself.
It is 7:30am, and it is basketball time. On the court it is clear who the leader is. Passes from young trainees frequently find their man, although attempts meet with mixed success. It is not about honing shooting skills, be it basketball or football, the other game the wrestlers play regularly.
In 2010, Sushil climbed a peak, at the Moscow world championship. But even while basking in glory, the importance of learning new things was not lost. Indian wrestling may be rooted to mud, but times are changing fast. “A world champion there played basketball and football to improve agility. It really helps improve speed and quickness.”
Football also serves another end – keeping the champion in a good mood. A team mate points out: “If Sushil is losing, he will tell the coach and make sure the match is extended till his side wins. Otherwise, he will give up only if the other side gets too far ahead.”
On the mat, there is analysis and discussion on every aspect. “The more you focus on the basics it is easy for you to attain perfection. I know I am growing old, so only with perfect techniques can I think of conquering the world arena.”
Sushil’s Olympic success has changed Indian wrestling. At Chhatrasal, there are hundreds of kids who have given up the comfort of their homes, hoping they can one day emulate ‘pehalwan ji’. Sushil is aware they copy his every move. “The level of bonding you see between senior and junior wrestlers, you won’t find in any other sport. Our seniors supported us, now it’s our time.”
With status comes responsibility. “We have to be even more cautious in our conduct because they are all following us.” The bonding is evident the moment you enter Sushil’s room. Despite his Olympic success, the man who can afford any luxury, still shares a room with eight others. Every meal is shared on a plate. “For me, everything is the same. It is only because of this bonding I was able to achieve, and will keep on achieving,” says Sushil.
It may come as a surprise that Sushil focuses on anything else. The Olympic medals have elevated him to Deputy Chief Commercial Manager and Administrative Officer, Sports, in the Northern Railways. After morning prayers, he makes many official phone calls. The first is to inform the office that he will reach by 10.30am and the files should be in order. The next is to organise a checking drive at the New Delhi railway station. “Once my wrestling career is over, I have to work. It’s better to learn now. As these days there is no national camp, I make it a point to spend some time in office,” says Sushil. “Whenever I go for checking, I take the new sports quota appointees as well so they also learn the job. This will change the wrong perception that sportspersons, especially wrestlers, cannot do official duty properly.”
But stardom comes in the way. At the New Delhi station, passengers mob him, and he obliges them by posing for photographs. “In Jammu, we caught 900 passengers travelling without tickets in a single day!” the pride shows. “Recently I went to Lucknow for a check. Somehow the media got wind of it and photographers mobbed me. My team was not able to conduct the checks properly,” he smiles. But the real sacrifice is not forgotten. He got married to Savi, daughter of his mentor, Satpal Singh, in 2011 and lady luck smiled; he won silver in London. “Savi has supported me so much. Because of my training and now this office schedule, I sometimes don’t even take her calls or return them. She never complains. She is from a sporting family, so she understands.”