With Indian weightlifting going through one of its most successful phases, The Bridge reached out to the man who is at the centre of the resurgence - India head coach Vijay Sharma.
"I tried a lot of experiments and by the grace of God I have got success with techniques I applied. I am trying to overhaul the complete scenario of the sport here," said Sharma.
There have been substantial changes since Sharma took full-time charge of the country's weightlifting fortunes in 2014. Most of India's best lifters, some of whom now regard him as a godfather, credit Sharma's scientific approach to the sport for having taking them to new highs. Speaking to The Bridge, weightlifter Gururaja Poojary said, "The secret to our success is hard practice and Vijay Sharma's planning. His system is very different - in terms of diet, training, as well as recovery."
In 2012, when Sharma was asked to join the India camp as assistant coach on the back of his team Uttar Pradesh becoming national champions three consecutive times, he was in for a rude shock. The training routine being followed at the camp was the same as in the 1990s, when Sharma had himself been a weightlifter.
"I faced a lot of failures in my weightlifting career. From that experience, I learned what problems weightlifters face, what are the things that needed to change. What I have learnt in my playing career, I have applied in my coaching career. I cannot say previous coaches were not doing the right thing, but I thought I have to change something," said Sharma.
He added, "When I was in Europe, it struck me that the same training pattern had been followed in India for the last 20-30 years. There had been no development from the time I was a young weightlifter. I tried to change the basics - like devising a specialized training pattern for all lifters. Every national camper needs something different. Accordingly, I told the federation we will need a lot of protein - in diet, not as supplement. SAI allowed us to have separate kitchens to prepare the specialized food. From 2014, this routine has been followed, and the results are in front of you."Indian weightlifting contingent was accorded a grand welcome on their return from Gold Coast.
"Other countries have been doing this for the last 20 years, we have been doing it for four years. At the recent junior Asian Championships, we qualified for Youth Olympics with second rank. As for the seniors, we are now in the top 10 in the world according to the points system. We are improving but we still have to improve a lot. I am trying even newer things with the lifters in training, and if God is on our side, we can soon break into the top 6," added Sharma.
'India will break 20-year jinx at 2018 Asian Games'
At the recent Commonwealth Games, where Indian lifters were seen winning gold in many categories without breaking sweat as others huffed and puffed, Vijay Sharma was the one constant presence by their side - planning, improvizing, motivating, calming - as invisible mind games raged on in the arena alongside the more noticeable battle of brawn inside the circle.“There is no shortage of talent in India – all these top nations are ahead of us in diet and science"
Sharma was seldom seen offering any outpourings of emotion, but he said his heart was beating the fastest during Sathish Sivalingam and RV Rahul's events. Both won gold despite having recently suffered major injuries.
"I did not want to push the injured players, but I had to push where I saw we could get gold. I do not know how Sathish even managed to get to CWG. He was not in training for the last month because of a thigh injury. He was saying he would go for the final lift, I stopped him as he had already ensured gold for us. Rahul had recently created a national record in his weight category, he was also nowehere near his best at the CWG," he said.
On India's overall CWG campaign, Sharma said, "We have done better than ever in many categories this year. Unfortunately, we suffered many injuries. I am happy we could get the golds despite the injuries."
Sharma added that he is confident India will break a long jinx at the Asian Games in August this year. "We have not won a weightlifting medal at Asian Games for the last 20 years. I assure you we will definitely get 2-3 medals in Jakarta. It is a deep regret of my heart that Sathish and Rahul are still not at their best and are in rehabilitation. We can also expect one medal from the women's section," he said.
On the exclusion of Rahul and Sathish from the government's TOPS scheme, Sharma said, "I have no specific problem with it. They already have sponsors and their CWG gold medals have given them a level of security as well. I cannot say we have any grievances against the government, whatever I ask for is delivered the next day."
On the exclusion of Punam Yadav, however, who has been mired in controversy since her gold at CWG, having been axed from the national camp for 'indiscipline', Sharma said, "She must be facing some personal problems. It was not a case of any problem in the camp or with the federation."
Was in national camp as weightlifter between 1993 and 2000
Recounting his playing career, Sharma said, "I was a national level champion but my career was not very good. I was in the national camp between 1993 and 2000. After a seven-year journey, I was finally selected to represent India at the 2000 Asian Championships. I don't know if I could have eventually won an international medal, but my playing career ended in 2000 when my wrist got injured and needed an operation.
"I then went back to the gym in my hometown Motinagar (Ghaziabad), where I had learnt weightlifting myself. Because of my playing experience, I was given a coaching job there. A lot of players from that gym have now become state-level champions."
"I applied for a diploma course in coaching at NIS Patiala twice, but could not enrol because my Railways job would not allow it."
"Finally in 2012, I got an opportunity after Uttar Pradesh's resounding success at the national level. The Indian weightlifting federation asked me if I would give my service to the national camp. I agreed and joined the camp as an assistant coach."
"I was given charge of the men's team for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where we did well. I then requested the federation for a coaching degree because I felt I could do with more expertise. They sent me on a 100-day course in Budapest, Hungary. After I came back from Europe, the federation chose me as the national team head coach."