On Saturday, Punjab wrestler Sandeep Singh battled past an immensely competitive field to be crowned national champion in the men's 74kg category. Even as Sandeep was preparing for the competition, his father Sagar Singh was also fighting for a cause that was important to him. Sagar was one of the many thousands of farmers from Punjab gathered at New Delhi's Singhu border; protesting the new farm laws introduced by the Indian government.
Over the last few months, Sandeep wanted to join the protests too but with the wrestling national championships coming up, the 21-year-old decided to focus on his training. "My father Sagar Singh and my uncle Jagjeet Singh were both at the protests. I'm always going to support my family. I'll always walk with them whatever they decide. They are right in their decision (to protest) but they wanted me to focus on what I'm doing and my dreams," he says.
His dream, ever since he was a kid, has been to be a wrestler. For the son of a farmer in Barjirati village in the district of Mansa in Punjab, a career in sports wasn't an obvious choice. There were no wrestling akharas for several miles around his village and Sandeep doesn't recall a sportsperson of any note from his village, either. But in 2008, around the time Sushil Kumar won a bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, Sandeep's uncle Jagjeet decided the nine-year-old needed to wrestle as well.
"He kept telling me about the Olympics. About how big they were and how important a medal was. It was initially my uncle's dream and then that became my dream as well," Sandeep says.
When he was 12, in order to get formal training in the sport, Sandeep joined the Miripuri Wrestling Academy in the town of Khanna in Punjab. "We get a lot of kids. Most of them are from small villages and almost no one has any idea about what the Olympics are. But even then what stood out for me about Sandeep was the fact that he was always talking about the Olympics and knew the value of an Olympic medal. He's always been devoted to that goal," says Sukhmandar Singh, who has coached Sandeep from the day he started all the way to the national title.
"I've never taken a day off training ever since I've started wrestling. I've missed family gatherings, festivals in order to keep my focus. I've even missed my sister's wedding once because I had a school-level tournament on the same day. If I'd attended that wedding, who knows maybe I wouldn't be a national champion today," he says. It's a level of dedication that's now helped Sandeep become a two-time national champion -- he was winner in the 79kg class at the last nationals to be held in 2019.
It was the Punjab farmers' protest that nearly got Sandeep to take a break from the sport. Farming, he insists, is very important to him, "My monthly expenses come to around 25,000 rupees and nearly all of that comes from my father from his farming income. He grows wheat and rice and it's only because of that, that I can wrestle. It's my livelihood too," he said.
Ultimately though, his decision to continue his training and to compete at the nationals seems to have paid off and moved him one step closer to his lifelong goal. India is yet to earn an Olympic quota in the 74kg category. Sandeep's victory means he is very much in contention in a crowded field that includes former national champion and rising prospect Gourav Baliyan, who lost in the first round to 2015 World bronze medallist Narsingh Yadav, another contender. Yadav later lost to former Asian medallist Amit Dhankar, who in turn was beaten by Sandeep in the semifinals. In the final, Sandeep defeated a former world representative in Jitender Kumar. Although he didn't participate this year, two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar still counts himself in the reckoning in this weight class. While another set of trials will be held in March to determine the Indian representative for the Olympic qualifiers, Sandeep's win at the nationals has given him additional confidence.
Even though his competition has ended, Sandeep won't be heading to Singhu even as he expects his father and uncle to rejoin the protests themselves. "I'm going straight back to my academy in Khanna to continue to train. I know my father and uncle will come back to the border to protest but I have to stay dedicated to my training. He's focused on his duty there, I'm focused on my job here," he says.