Ravi Kumar's passion bears fruit in impressive Worlds debut

Ravi Kumar, who won 57kg bronze and secured a Tokyo Olympics quota, after defeating Korea's Sunggwon Kim during the round of 16 at the Wrestling World Championships. PTI Photo

Ravi Kumar Dahiya's room at New Delhi's Chhatrasal stadium is part of a row of prefabricated structures adjacent to the training hall in what is Indian wrestling's most storied academy. It isn't much to look at. It's small - just a couple of arms breadth across. It smells damp and musty, and the paint has peeled off in most places. There are few things by way of possessions -- a bed, a couple of chairs, a wall calendar and a few of his tracksuits hanging off a nail in the wall.

For the 22-year-old, this modest accommodation has a special significance. "This room here used to be Yogeshwar pehelwan's (Yogeshwar Dutt). It was built for him. He won an Olympic medal from this room. After he left Chhatrasal stadium, I was given this room," he had said a few weeks ago, not long after he had won the national trials and earned the right to represent India at the World Championships.

Ravi will have the chance to carve a bit of Olympic legacy of his own. On Thursday at Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan, he won a quota place to the Tokyo Olympics by advancing to the medal round. He had started his tournament with a 11-0 technical superiority in the first period over Korea's Kim Sunggwon - the last six points racked up through the leg lace that won Yogeshwar Dutt the Olympic bronze medal in London. He had followed that with a 17-6 technical superiority win over European 61kg champion Arsen Harutyunyan and then beat 2017 World champion Yuki Takahashi 6-1 in the quarterfinals. A chance to wrestle for gold beckoned but the reigning World champion managed to hold on for a win even as he saw a 6-0 lead whittled down to a final scoreline of 6-4 in the last two minutes of the contest.

It was a remarkable breakout performance for Ravi, wrestling in his first ever senior World Championships. But it was an expected one for those who have known him best. Virender Kumar is one of them. Senior coach at Chhatrasal stadium, he had worked with Ravi ever since he first arrived as an eleven year old at the stadium back in 2009.

Ravi isn't new to wrestling. He's from the Nahri village in Haryana's Sonipat district - named after a nearby canal but famous for producing wrestling talent. Six years before he would win an Olympic quota at Nur Sultan, another young man from his village -- Amit Dahiya -- won a silver medal at the Budapest World Championships, one year after becoming the youngest Indian wrestler to compete at the Olympics.

Ravi started his career wrestling in his village itself but Chhatrasal would be where he came into his own. Travelling to a different city was a choice he was willing to make. "It was going to be difficult for him to come back to the village but uska junoon tha ki kushti karni thi (He was passionate about wrestling)," says his father Rakesh.

The single room he has now would have been considered a luxury then. That entire block of rooms is only meant for coaches and senior international wrestlers. When he first joined Chhatrasal, Ravi shared one of the cement dorm style rooms built into the stadium with 20 other children. But his desire to excel was noticed by his coaches right from the start. "There are boys who come to Chhatrasal to escape from his family or have other interests. But Ravi was someone who came to Chhatrasal because he had a passion for wrestling. That's all he wanted to do," says coach Singh. "When you have that passion that you want to do something in wrestling, nothing that can stop you," says Virender.

Not that there weren't any obstacles. Ravi's father is a farmer who doesn't own land but instead rents out fields from others and works on that. He wasn't able to watch any of his son's bouts on Thursday because he had to work on his fields then. "His family is very poor. Despite that his father would somehow manage to travel to Delhi with milk and fruits for him. We knew that he was taking loans to pay for his son's diet also. So when it was needed, the senior wrestlers in Chhatrasal and even the coaches would contribute what they could. We knew this boy was something special" says Virender.

He would give a glimpse of that in 2015 itself when he won a silver at the Junior World Championships. The transition to success in the seniors wasn't smooth. A knee injury picked up in the semifinals of the junior Worlds, flared up during the 2017 senior nationals. "It took him a year to completely recover from it," says Dr. Munesh Kumar, a physio provided by Olympic Gold Quest that has been supporting Ravi since the 2015 Junior World Championships.

Since then, Ravi's career graph has been one any wrestler would be proud of. In 2018, he won a silver at the U-23 World Championships, a year after Bajrang Punia had won a medal of the same colour at that tournament. A fifth-place finish at the senior Asian Championships this year might seem like a blip, but it was a result he secured despite sustaining an injury to his ankle during a quarterfinal loss to defending Asian Champion Kum Song Kang.

Since then, he's steadily cemented his spot as the premier Indian wrestler in the 57kg category. At the selection trials for the World Championships in July, he would beat Olympian Sandeep Tomar and senior wrestler Utkarsh Kale on the way to securing his place in the national roster.

At Nur Sultan, Ravi would finally fulfill the potential his coaches knew he possessed. "Ravi has a lot of natural talent. His most obvious advantage is the superior reach compared to his rivals. "He's 5'7". He's the tallest wrestler in his category at the World Championships. Most other wrestlers (Takahashi is 5'3" and Uguev is 5'2") are at least three or four inches shorter than him. This gives him an advantage when he's trying to shoot for a single leg because the opponent can't directly counter and attack his leg in return," says Virender.

The reach is a bonus but it's complemented by other qualities. "His best skills are that he is very strong mentally and physically he has very good stamina and speed," says Virender. All those attributes were in full display on Thursday. He gave testament to his mental fortitude in recovering from a 0-6 start in the first minute against Harutyunyan, and instead focussing on picking up points against a steadily disheartened opponent. His stamina came through in the quarterfinal against Takahashi, an opponent who had beaten him in the Asian Championships earlier this year. Where Ravi was handicapped by injury in that contest, he was hindered by a shorter recovery time after his match with Harutyunyan than Takahashi who had wrestled earlier in the day. His endurance nearly helped him pull off the upset of the division when he once again recovered from a 0-6 start against Uguev, and closed within 2 points before the clock ran out courtesy some cynical gamesmanship by the Russian World Champion.

While the Olympic quota and the chance to wrestle for bronze might seem like a more than satisfactory outing at a debut World Championships, coach Virender rues the chance for competing for gold. "We had prepared for this tournament with only the gold in mind. But there were some mistakes that happened. Ravi has a weakness in the fact that if he doesn't warm up well, he takes time to start moving well in a match. In that first time if the opponent scores too many points, he can lose matches too," he says. It is a wrinkle in Ravi's game, that the coach is confident can be ironed out with time.

He has 11 months to do that, to be precise. "He will prepare as well as he can for the Olympic games next year. These mistakes can be overcome. Over there, the target will only be the gold medal," says Virender.