Rohit Singh confesses he wasn’t destined to be a wrestler. It was because of his brother’s misfortune, father’s wish and desperation to earn a livelihood that led him to an akhara.
On Sunday, Rohit was crowned national champion in the 65kg category, one of the toughest weight classes in India. Representing Haryana, he staged a dramatic comeback in the last three minutes of the final against Services Sports Control Board’s Shravan, erasing a seven-point deficit to win 12-8.
Rohit impressed the national coaching staff with his speed and temperament, but honing these qualities – and winning a national title – was never his ambition or interest. Instead, as an 11-year-old, he was just happy to be in the company of his elder brother, an emerging wrestler, and cook roti sabzi for him. In his free time, Rohit helped out his father, a cattle herder, by taking the livestock for grazing.
“But then, one day my brother suffered an injury. I was cooking his meal and when I saw his condition, it was apparent that he wouldn’t be able to continue wrestling,” Rohit, 19, says.
For a family of nine – Rohit is sixth of seven brothers – the income from herding cattle wasn’t enough to run the household. “So, out of compulsion more than anything, I joined a wrestling school,” he says.
“I was relieved when he took that decision,” says Rohit’s father Dalel Singh.
Dalel did not impose any decision on his sons but was certain of one thing – none of them would be cattle herders. “There’s so much cattle theft these days… too much headache,” he says. So, on the advice of a neighbourhood wrestler, Bholu Pehelwan, he introduced all his sons to wrestling.
In Haryana, the respect even a half-decent wrestler commands is the reason many are lured to the sport in the first place. Rohit had witnessed that first hand with his brother, but also realised the need for money to sustain a career in wrestling.
So, he began to take part in dangals across Haryana that had cash rewards as low as Rs 50. For almost a year, he crisscrossed across Haryana and travelled as far as Kolhapur in Maharashtra, where the prize money was slightly higher, to earn a livelihood. “But I struggled to earn money by competing in dangals. I wasn’t able to beat the main guys to earn enough cash prize,” he says. “In 2015, I turned to Olympic-style wrestling.”
Success on the mat came relatively easier. “He has good speed, which is helpful in mat wrestling, and over the years, has developed a good technique, especially in launching leg attacks, an essential element in freestyle wrestling,” former India coach Kuldeep Singh, who recruited Rohit for the Navy’s wrestling team, says.
He became cadet national champion before bagging the junior crown and ultimately the senior title.
Rohit’s win in 65kg opens up an interesting race for the future. At present, the weight class is dominated by India’s top freestyler Bajrang Punia, a multiple-time World and Asian medallist.
Having already won a quota for the Tokyo Olympics, Bajrang was exempted from the National Championship this weekend. He is now in Michigan (USA), preparing for the Games. On Sunday, college sports activity in the American state was halted after a Covid-19 outbreak, but Bajrang was able to continue his training.
In Bajrang’s absence, the audition to find his successor was underway in Noida, where Rohit emerged on top. “In the last few years, Rohit has dominated this weight category across all age-groups. By winning the senior championship, he has proven his potential,” Kuldeep, also the Navy coach, says.
Challenging Bajrang for a place in the national squad, though, isn’t on Rohit’s mind right now. “He (Bajrang) is a world medallist; a very big wrestler. And I have just won a national title,” he says. “I’ll take one step a time and see where destiny takes me.”
SAI seeks report from WFI
The Sports Authority of India, on Sunday, sought a report from the Wrestling Federation of India over the violation of Covid-19 protocols that took place on the first day of the National Championships on Saturday.
SAI said in a statement: “We have taken up the matter with the Wrestling Federation of India and impressed upon them that the SOP for competitions has to be adhered to strictly. We have also sought a report from the Federation on the alleged violation, by Monday. The federation has assured compliance of protocol.”
The situation on Sunday was only marginally better. While no one except wrestlers was allowed on the field of play, there was no distancing in the stands, where hundreds of spectators, most of them without masks, sat in close proximity.
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