Narsingh Yadav: 'Nearly everyone deserted me, but I never doubted I'd return'

Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

A couple of days ago, as he cooled down following a training session, Narsingh Yadav and coach Jagmal Singh spoke about the big news of the day.

It was about the fact that Narsingh had been recalled to the national wrestling camp after four years. Post workout banter with Narsingh, his coach says, is usually a lighthearted matter. This time though, their conversation was deeper and went late into the evening.

"I had so many accomplishments. I'd won medals at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and even the World Championships. I was an Olympian. But I'm only remembered for one thing," Narsingh said.

That 'thing' --a four-year long ban for drug offences -- is the reason for Narsingh's exile from Olympic wrestling. The circumstances of his suspension are a matter of record. Narsingh had earned an Olympic quota by virtue of winning a bronze medal at the 2015 World Championships. However, he subsequently became embroiled with double Olympic-medalist Sushil Kumar over who would represent India in the 74kg category at the Rio Olympics. It was a bitterly fought and controversial battle that saw Narsingh test positive (under suspicious circumstances) for steroid use just days before the competition. Narsingh continues to believe he was the victim of sabotage, but he received a four-year ban all the same.

The four years in the wilderness have been the toughest of Narsingh's career. He is 31 now, having lost the best years of his career.

"Nearly everyone deserted me. I lost sponsors and friends. But I never doubted that I would return," he says.

The belief that he would return wasn't in doubt even as any hope for relief faded steadily.

"We tried a lot to get the ban reduced. We wrote mercy petitions. We went to the CBI. No one helped," says coach Jagmal. Through it all, training never stopped. "Practise has continued as before. Sometimes he might have duty but otherwise, he never let it go. Maybe I will be let off one year early. But he stuck with his practise. He believes he can beat every other athlete in his category."

Not many athletes would want to continue to train in such circumstances. Jagmal though shared Narsingh's self belief that he would overcome all odds.

"In my life, I've never seen anyone with as much will power as Narsingh had. Once early in his career, had his finger broken completely in a bout. It was completely dislocated. But he showed no pain. I tied it really tight and he went back to wrestling and won.

"In another bout, he wrestled a match despite an injury. Later we did an MRI and found that he had torn his knee ligaments off completely. The injury was so bad, he went under surgery the same day. The doctors didn't even know how he was walking. Despite this he never complained once."

Lion hearted as he is, sheer physical courage isn't going to be enough. Jagmal knows this too.

"His preparation is good but four years is a long time. He is 31 now. His peak was four years ago. Without injury, you can play until you are 32 or 33. Right now it's about maintaining that performance."

"Before, Narsingh used to think everyone was his friend. He used to be very trusting. He's lost that trust. He'd leave his door open at the hostel. Now he locks his door." coach Jagmal Singh

There are distractions that didn't exist four years ago. Narsingh was delaying his wedding until after the 2016 Olympics. Following his ban, he married and became the father of a son earlier this year. But when he learned that the Olympics had been postponed until 2021 and that he still had a chance to qualify, he switched focus.

"I told him, there are no half steps if you want to prepare for the Olympics. You cannot have a grhasti (family) life. You have to return to the akhara life," says Jagmal.

Narsingh has done just that. Once the central governments' restrictions to limit the spread of the Coronavirus eased in May, Narsingh took his son and wife to her parents' home in Hissar, Haryana.

Jagmal reckons Narsingh is as physically strong as he was before he was handed his ban. There are other challenges though. Most significant is the lack of practice with high level opponents.

"He hasn't had any competition on the mat in four years. He couldn't fight in the state or even district level. He didn't even get a chance to take part in the inter-police competitions."

The only competitions that were still open were on the mud in traditional dangals.

"Dangals have nothing to do with Olympic style wrestling. The matches are longer and slower. But Narsingh insisted he would go. Dil khush rakhne ke liye (to keep his heart happy) he needed some practice. He thought at least let me see where I am. If he fought and got tired, at least he would know kitne paani me hai (how deep the water is)," says Jagmal.

The results haven't always been encouraging. At a dangal in Indore a year and a half ago, Narsingh competed against an Iranian, who didn't have an international record to speak of. This was the sort of fight that should have been a walkover a few years ago. Yet, although Narsingh won, Jagmal admits he was pushed to his limit. "Four years is a long time in any sport and especially in wrestling," he says.

While it's uncertain the level to which Narsingh's ability has waned, if there is one quality that has only intensified, that would be the level of his desire.

"His iccha (desire) that he has to win an Olympic medal has only got stronger. He is training at a level that's about 80% of what he would normally do before a competition but he can bring it up to 100% within a couple of months," says Jagmal.

It isn't in Narsingh's nature to give up, if he feels he even has a fraction of a chance for success.

"He's like Yogeshwar Dutt, these top level athletes don't want to give up. If he thinks he has even a little bit of ability in him, he will push himself to continue. Before he gets to the Olympics, he will have to go through the India trials and then the world qualifiers. How he does there will let him know if he has the ability to continue or not."

Regardless, one match that Narsingh will desperately hope to get is a bout with Sushil Kumar. Four years ago after he had won the Olympic quota, Narsingh had refused to duel with Sushil. Now as he's putting together a shattered career, he wants to set the record straight.

"At every dangal he took part in, he would openly challenge Sushil to a bout. Once it nearly came to happen but then those plans didn't go ahead," says Jagmal.

Perhaps things will be different when he does return to the Sports Authority of India campus in Sonepat next month. He isn't the same person he was when he was last here. It's not just about his wrestling ability.

"His nature has changed too," says Jagmal. "He used to think everyone was his friend. He used to be very trusting. He's lost that trust. He'd leave his door open at the hostel. Now he locks his door."