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Arjun Halakurki's quiet rise away from wrestling hubs

Former India coach Kuldeep Singh says Arjun Halakurki (above) will have to move up to the 60kg division if he wants to make it to the Olympics. ESPN

At first glance, the raising of Arjun Halakurki's hand following the final of the men's 55kg Greco-Roman competition at the recently concluded wrestling nationals isn't something that would turn too many heads. It's not hard to fathom why. In India, the popularity of men's Greco-Roman wrestling -- in which holds below the waist are forbidden -- pales in comparison to that enjoyed by the freestyle format. There is also the fact that the 55kg division isn't an Olympic weight class.

Yet Halakurki's victory was special. It was also one that immediately threw up a challenge for statisticians. Just when was the last time that a wrestler from Karnataka won a gold medal at the national championships? Eventually the mystery is solved. Halakurki's gold, which he clinched representing the Services team, was won over a quarter of a century since M Mattupatti won the 82kg Greco-Roman title at the 1995 nationals in New Delhi.

There is a simple reason for the long drought. That there are vast catchment areas of talent in the north Indian states of Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and the western Indian state of Maharashtra is well known. It's exponentially rarer for elite-level athletes to emerge from other parts of the country where the sport is less popular.

One of the few oasis of support for wrestling is Halakurki's own village of Devanamatti in central Karnataka's Davanagere district. "I picked up wrestling because it's popular in my village. My father was also a wrestler who competed in local competitions," says the 21-year-old Halakurki.

His own dreams never went much beyond those same competitions either. It was luck, though, that he was spotted at a local tournament -- when he was 10 years old -- by Shivananda Gowda, who coached at the government sports hostel in Devanagere. "I saw that he had a lot of strength at a young age. It was a natural strength because he had it despite not having a proper diet. I started him as a Greco-Roman wrestler because that is a game that requires much more strength than freestyle wrestling," says Gowda.

A proper sportsperson's diet was a luxury that Halakurki could only dream of affording. "His family is very poor. His father didn't have any land and worked in other people's fields to earn money," says Gowda. Even the little support his father provided was taken away when he was killed while trying to feed his family. "There was not enough food, so he used to hunt wild rabbit and on one of those days he was run over by a truck," says Gowda.

But even in his struggle, Halakurki found support from others. "There were many players in that hostel, but we knew that Arjun was a rare wrestler who could be of international quality," says Rafiq Holi, one of Halakurki's senior at the hostel and another Karnataka wrestler who has gone on to represent the Services team. "We did what we could. If he didn't have food, we would collect what little money we had and together raise enough to buy him almonds and milk," says Holi.

Halakurki's talent was clear to his colleagues at the hostel and was soon apparent nationally as well as he won a junior bronze medal a couple of years ago. It is a result that might not seem very significant but, as Gowda explains, it opened the door to something bigger. "There's not a lot of competition for Arjun here. But once he got a medal and entered the camp, he became very good very fast," he says.

"His technique is strong and he also has a lot of hip and back strength that allows him to throw his opponents. That's very important for a Greco-Roman wrestler." Kuldeep Singh, former coach of India's Greco-Roman team

A year later, Halakurki would be offered a job with the Services team and that saw him improve even further. "Most wrestlers join as a havaldar in the Army but he joined only as a sipahi [the lowest rank] -- but that was enough. He got better competition, a regular job and a sportsperson's diet for the first time in his life. It also gave him the motivation to do better," says Holi.

Indeed, Halakurki's graph has only been rising. Earlier this year he won the U-23 national championships and earned the right to represent India at the U-23 World Championships. There he reached the quarterfinals before losing a high-scoring match 14-12 to eventual silver medallist Emin Sefershaev of Russia. It's a loss that he swears will only help him get better. "My wrestling defence was poor. I will learn from the mistakes I made there," he says. At the nationals, he conceded all of one point, beating his opponent in the final by technical superiority.

His coaches in the Services team don't doubt his talent and ability. "His technique is strong and he also has a lot of hip and back strength that allows him to throw his opponents. That's very important for a Greco-Roman wrestler. If he wants to go to the Olympics he will have to move up to the 60kg division, but he has a lot of potential," says Kuldeep Singh, former coach of the Indian Greco-Roman team.

Back in Karnataka, the hope certainly is that Halakurki can do just that. The last wrestler from Karnataka to represent India at the Olympics was Mohan Patil, from Belgaum on the Maharashtra border, who wrestled in the 62kg category at the 1992 Olympics. "My goal is to represent India at the Olympics. I will keep improving and try to qualify for the 2024 Olympics," says Halakurki.