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Young blood rising - wrestling phenom Gaurav Baliyan is here to stay

The referee lifts Gaurav Baliyan's arm after his victory over Praveen Rana in the final of the 74kg competition at the Wrestling National Championships in Jalandhar. WFI

Not long after Gaurav Baliyan's arm was lifted by the referee following his win in the final of the 74kg competition at the Wrestling National Championships in Jalandhar on Friday, he brought it down and almost instinctively leant forward to touch the feet of his opponent Praveen Rana.

It was a gesture of respect for Rana -- who has two medals at the Asian Championships, including a silver this year -- and is amongst the senior most wrestlers in Baliyan's category at the Nationals. The gesture might seem a little extreme considering Rana is only 25 years old, but bear in mind that Baliyan himself only turned 18 just a couple of months ago.

Baliyan -- courtesy his 5-3 victory over Rana -- is now amongst the youngest-ever wrestlers to win a title in the history of the Nationals. He was among those tipped to win the title following the withdrawal of double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar from the competition, but there were still potential hurdles in the forms of Rana and former Asian gold medallist Amit Dhankar to overcome.

To put the teenager's achievement in perspective, Baliyan currently holds the junior, the Under-23 and now the senior national titles, winning all of them over the course of the 2019 season. But for all his obvious talent, Baliyan is still getting used to the fact that he's now competing on the same platform as his seniors and, like he did on Friday, beating them. "I used to watch them on TV. Now I'm wrestling against them," he said.

Baliyan always wanted to be a wrestler. It was in his blood -- his uncle and father who lived in the village of Shoron in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar district, had also wrestled. He trained at his uncle's akhara before eventually shifting base to Nirdosh Baliyan's academy at the government Inter College in nearby Shahpur.

If Gaurav is amongst the youngest national champions, Nirdosh must certainly rank amongst the youngest coaches to have produced one. He is only 32 years old, having started his academy eight years ago after suffering a back injury as a young wrestler. Painted on the walls of his academy are the words 'Target Olympics' and in Gaurav he felt he had an athlete who could fulfil that dream.

"There are three things that make an athlete -- physical strength, mental strength [intelligence] and emotional strength. The first two are important but the most crucial is the emotional strength or willpower. Gaurav is very strong physically and he also has a good understanding of wrestling. But his best quality is that his willpower is very strong," says Nirdosh.

Gaurav's desire to stay in the fight was critical considering the start he had got in life. "His family is very poor. His father died of cancer when he was just nine because the family didn't have the money to even take him to the hospital," says Nirdosh. Gaurav's mother currently works as a helper at an anganwadi (rural child-care centre) and makes barely enough to provide for the family of four.

Despite the challenges, she would support Gaurav to the best of her ability. "We didn't have much money but we had three cows," he recalls. "We sold the milk of one cow to our neighbours. The milk of one cow was for our family's needs and one cow was kept just for me, to provide milk for me."

There was trouble away from home too. Muzaffarnagar is one of the most communally sensitive regions of the country and when the devastating riots that killed 62 broke out in 2013, Nirdosh Baliyan's wrestling academy wasn't spared. "The rioters destroyed everything. They didn't even leave the mat. We ourselves learned that they were coming and we fled to our homes. A lot of the other wrestlers who were training with me quit the sport. It took a few months before even I decided to return to wrestling," he says.

Return he did though, even as Nirdosh rebuilt his academy closer to his own village of Goyla.

While he now appears a prodigy, Gaurav didn't have the easiest initiation as a wrestler. "I couldn't even seem to win in the district level," he recalls. "Even though we were competing in the same age category, most of the other wrestlers were older to me. I couldn't match them physically," he says.

He finally seemed to find his feet in 2016, when he first won the School National title and then followed up with the first of two cadet national titles a year later. He would then travel to his first international competition -- the world cadets, where he won a silver. "That's when I could physically match up with the other wrestlers," Gaurav says. It's a growth curve that didn't worry Nirdosh nor make him interested in speeding things up. "The first thing a boy learns between the age of 10 and 15 is his basic technique and how to be quick while doing it. Between 15 and 20 is when he adds strength to his game. And it's only after he turns 20 that he actually starts to understand what wrestling is about," he says.

Gaurav, his coach believes, will get still stronger in the next few years. His mat awareness too will only improve with age. That is a scary prospect for opponents. Over the last few months, Gaurav's ring acumen has increased at every competition he has competed in. His physicality is already posing challenges among his peers. At the national championships he beat three of his opponents by technical superiority, simply bulldozing them off the mat at times. In the final against Rana, he didn't fall for any of the tricks of a wily opponent and even matched him in the mad scramble that gave him a decisive two-point lead in the final period.

And he isn't done yet.

While Gaurav is the current national champion, it is Sushil Kumar who still the best Indian at that weight and the one expected to travel for the Asian Championships and the Olympic qualifiers next year. Gaurav has participated in one trial along with Sushil -- in Delhi for the World Championships earlier this year -- although he lost out before he could even square up against the all-time great. He has only improved since then and he's hoping to get a lot closer this time around.

"Sushil Kumar is one of my favourite wrestlers. I've never met him though. Even the last time in Delhi, I only saw him from a distance. At the next trials I hope I can wrestle against him," he says.