Orphaned at 11, national champion at 18, the story of Aman Sehrawat
- Newly-crowned national champion in 57kg division, Aman Sehrawat, opens up on his life, dreams, and the prospect of beating Olympic silver medallist Ravi Dahiya
The metal door opens with a sinister creak and shuts with a definitive thud, shutting out the rumble of the outside world. The sharp odour of sweat fills the air.
Four Olympic-sized wrestling mats cover what used to be an underground parking lot, and standing below the AC vents and fire sprinklers, chief coach Parveen Singh Dahiya scans a group of over 50 teenage boys. This is where it all begins at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium, aptly, at the very bottom.
A giant poster of 'Mahabali' Satpal, the founder-patriarch of this famed wrestling incubator that began with a single earthen pit in 1987, adorns the right wall. In it, a beefy Satpal sits victorious alongside his Mongolian opponent, the late Dashdorjiin Tserentogtokh, at the 1982 Asian Games. From it, flows the belief that has inspired an assortment of achievers — Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt, Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia, Ravi Dahiya, to name the obvious few.
Coach Dahiya is in love with the place. Seven days a week, his alarm goes up at 4 am and the process to chisel raw talent begins. Warm-ups, bodyweight training, sparring, technical sessions. Gradually, the punishing schedule becomes a way of life for young dreamers like Aman Sehrawat. A two-time World Cadet Championship bronze medallist (2018, 2019), a Cadet Asian Gold medallist (2019), and the current national champion in the 57 kg weight class, there's nothing overtly unique about the 18-year-old, except maybe his sculpted anterior deltoids. He talks in slow monosyllables, rarely looks in the eye, and doesn't read too much in his early success. Put him on the mat though, and something flips.
Coach Dahiya signals a heavier trainee to get ready, and within minutes, Sehrawat is ready to put up an exhibition. Dahiya is joined by two other seasoned coaches—Jaiveer Dahiya and Ashok Sharma—and the trio barks instructions at the grapplers.
"Kalajung!" shouts Dahiya, and Sehrawat obliges. Also known as fireman's throw, this move involves the wrestler getting hold of the opponent's thigh and using upper body strength to toss him/her.
Jaiveer demands "chitt" — or pin — and sure enough, Sehrawat is up to the task. He half-hugs the opponent, who had put his ego and skills aside to let Sehrawat perfect his moves, and touches the feet of all three coaches present.
At the Wrestling Nationals in Gonda recently, Sehrawat barely broke a sweat to romp to his first Seniors gold.
Only earlier this year, when the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) conducted the deferred 2020 Nationals, Sehrawat had lost in the finals, before receiving a tip that changed his game.
The advice came from the man who made Chhatrasal the focus of India’s recent international success in wrestling—two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar—before he was arrested in May and charged with murder.
"He told me that I need to get closer to the opponent to attack,” Sehrawat said. “I have long limbs, so attacking from distance is not a problem, but a seasoned wrestler gets that extra second to react if you attack even slightly further from where you should. That advice changed my game.
"I had only met him (Kumar) in passing on a few occasions. All of us look up to him; he is a legend and the reason why so many of us took up the sport in the first place. I didn't even know he was following my progress.”
Sehrawat took up wrestling in earnest only after watching Kumar break the then 56-year medal draught for Indian wrestling at the Beijing Games in 2008.
Sehrawat’s Nationals gold guarantees him a ticket to Pretoria, South Africa for the Commonwealth Championships early next month where he will make his international debut in the senior category.
Birohar is a nondescript village in Haryana's Jhajjar district—a wrestling nursery within the wrestling nursery that Haryana is. Unlike Jhajjar's Khuddan village that jumped to national consciousness with the rise of Bajrang Punia, Birohar is yet to find its own star. The village gets no more than eight hours of electricity in the day, and there's no potable water supply. The natural canal water that locals have access to is too salty, so they fetch water from tube wells some 500 metres away to get their drinking water.
Sehrawat was born here in 2003. Ten years later, he lost his mother. Next year, his father passed away. Sehrawat and his younger sister, Puja, were raised by their elder uncle, Sudhir Sehrawat, and a maternal aunt.
"Aman was the nicest boy in the village. Very quiet and extremely interested in sports. He never gave in to bad habits despite losing his parents so young," says Sudhir.
Sehrawat's father, Somveer, had five brothers. The 18-acre farmland that the family owned was equally divided among them, and Somveer took to growing wheat after briefly working as a tractor mechanic. Then, his mother, Kamlesh, fell sick.
"She had asthma. She really loved their cow, and when the cow died, she slipped into some kind of depression," says Sudhir. Kamlesh's asthma and mental health deteriorated rapidly. She would often call up her family and tell them she wanted to end her life. Then, one day, she was found hanging in the house.
The passing away of Kamlesh pushed Somveer to a dark corner, and he took recourse in drugs. "That was a very tough phase," says Sudhir. "He damaged his lungs beyond repair. But one good thing that he did was he took Aman to Chhatrasal Stadium."
Sehrawat Junior was a natural athlete. He aced school sports, and won short-distance races in village competitions. He would often visit a local akhada, and gradually, developed an interest in wrestling.Soon, the father and son landed at Chhatrasal Stadium, and Sehrawat's life began to change.
"When he first came in, he was around 11 years old, scrawny and timid. But he showed the most important ingredient a wrestler must possess—fight," says Dahiya. Sehrawat fought opponents on the mat and the grief of losing his mother off it.
"It was a long time back, but I recall being really sad sometimes. I didn't know what to say or how to react," he says.
A year rolled by before Sehrawat’s life turned again. Once, during a practice bout, he sprained his knee and was advised rest. Sehrawat thought of paying a quick visit to his family and left for home.
As he approached his house, located in the middle of a distant, secluded farmland, Sehrawat noticed the usually quiet surroundings buzzing with people. Before he could make sense of the commotion, he saw his father’s corpse, being readied for cremation.
"I didn't know what had happened. I mean, how does one react to such a situation. Imagine coming home to such a scene. Beyond grief, I was in shock,” he said. "It was a strange co-incidence — me getting injured and deciding to go home the same day my father died."
Again, it was the wrestler’s life in Chhatrasal that came to Sehrawat’s rescue. In the unrelenting discipline and rhythm of his training, and the companionship of his fellow trainees, Sehrawat says he “found a family” in Chhatrasal.
“I never felt I had no one to talk to or celebrate my success with, thanks to these people”, says Sehrawat.
"I am happy that he has found a home in Chhatrasal," Sudhir, his uncle, says. "There is no future for him in the village. Plus, being a farmer in this country is not easy. I grew cotton this year, but the crops were all devastated by rains. Then, I grew bajra (millet) but there were no buyers and the crop went to waste."
The three-hour training session has ended in the basement and the young wrestlers are resting their punished bodies when, without warning, pandemonium ensues. From the backdoor, emerges the sculpted frame of Ravi Dahiya. Still only 23, Dahiya is the toast of the nation, thanks to his Olympics silver. Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna, country's highest sporting honour, arrived this month.
Wide-eyed trainees scramble to touch his feet, and Dahiya, clearly enjoying his stardom, nonchalantly walks on. He notices a couple of coaches and stops for a brief greeting, seeks their blessings, and exits with his mini entourage.
Sehrawat, fresh from demonstrating his moves, watches from afar. He is prodded whether he can beat Dahiya. "Of course. I wouldn't be wrestling if I didn't believe I could."
Dahiya and Sehrawat compete in the same Olympic weight class (57kg), and with the latter's Nationals gold, a showdown between the two at some stage is imminent. Sehrawat, whose maintenance weight is 60kg, is in no mood to jump to the higher class (65kg) where Tokyo bronze medallist Bajrang Punia sits pretty.
The two have not played a full-scale bout yet, because Sehrawat competed in juniors until recently. They have had a few informal sparring sessions though, referred to as 'zor' in wrestling lexicon, and Sehrawat claims to have gauged Dahiya enough.
"I can beat him, I am 100 percent sure. He is very good and carries a reputation, but we at Chhatrasal don't look at each other that way. We have grown up watching Sushil, Yogeshwar Dutt, and Bajrang train, and they have always taught us to believe. Ravi is one of us. We start a bout as equals.”
Coach Dahiya reckons Sehrawat will be ready to challenge world's best by 2028.
Will he be able to challenge Ravi Dahiya for the Paris Games? "Look, Paris is less than three years away, and I feel he (Sehrawat) is yet to hit peak wrestling maturity. Physically, a wrestler matures by the time he/she is 23, because by then you have gained enough experience and your body has grown fully."
Sehrawat’s personal goals though are more ambitious. He wants to bid for next year's CWG and Asiad, and if that involves beating the reigning Olympic silver medallist along the way, so be it.
When Ravi Dahiya returned from Tokyo, a rare off was announced at Chhatrasal. Outdoor catering was arranged, the mess rules were relaxed, and a DJ belted out Punjabi and Haryanvi music till the wee hours. Sehrawat was among the herd of wrestlers who danced to Dahiya's success. Then, Dahiya climbed the mini stage and held his silver medal atop in a rousing statement of what talent and toil could achieve. The medal was passed along in the crowd for young hopefuls to see it up close. Only one wrestler chose not to look at it.
"I want to hold my own Olympic medal first. There’s no fun in admiring others’ medals," Sehrawat says.