Maharastra has churned out a plethora of champion wrestlers over many decades now. Of course, the biggest name to emerge from the state is Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav, who had won Independent India’s first individual medal in the bantamweight category (54 kg) at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.
Subsequently, grapplers from Maharashtra have left a rich legacy – the names of Maruti Mane (who had won the light heavyweight category 97 kg gold at the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games) and Ganpat Andhalkar (who is the only Indian wrestler to win two medals in the same Asian Games in two different forms – a silver in the heavyweight category +97 kg in freestyle wrestling and a gold in the heavyweight category +97 kg in Greco-roman wrestling) are too big to be ignored. Then there is Narsingh Yadav (although hailing from Uttar Pradesh, he did his wrestling from the state), who made the country proud winning a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Games as well as a medal of the same colour at the 2015 World Wrestling Championship.
Over the years, the dominance of wrestlers from the pockets of Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab is there for all to see, but Maharastra has received a big boost with Rahul Aware clinching a bronze in the 61 kg category at the 2019 World Wrestling Championship – a feat that will surely serve as a huge encouragement for the sport in the state that hasn’t quite reaped a rich harvest of medals as one would have expected given the rich tradition it has.
“Obviously, winning the bronze medal at the 2019 World Championship is the biggest moment of my wrestling career, but I honestly desire that upcoming youngsters look up to my bronze-medal feat and strive to make a big name in wrestling. There is nothing more satisfactory than being a source of motivation or inspiration for youngsters to have fire in the belly to chase glory on the mat,” says Rahul in an exclusive chat. It was only his second World Championship appearance – Rahul had wrestled in the 57 kg in the 2014 edition and lost in the second round.
The confabulation veers towards why Maharashtra with a rich wrestling tradition hasn’t quite been able to build on it and match the overwhelming contribution of grapplers from Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab and Rahul offers his perspective.
Look, Maharastra has produced many big names in wrestling over the years, but we have not been able to churn our top-quality wrestlers like grapplers from the Northern region has. Kolhapur, Satara and Pune are wrestling hubs in the state, and most of them are more inclined towards mud wrestling (dangals) because of the attractive prize money it offers and are reluctant to take up mat wrestling. But things are changing, and with the state government adequately rewarding wrestlers for their performances in international competitions, there is much to look forward to in the coming years.
Rahul hails from Patoda hamlet in Maharashtra’s Beed district and the sport runs in the family – his father Balasaheb Aware was a wrestler in the eighties and runs a free training centre for grapplers in his village. “I used to be a crusty kid in school and I had a reputation of picking up fights on a regular basis, and my father took a call to put me in wrestling and there has been no looking back since then,” Rahul who recently took up a new job of DSP at Maharastra Police after serving for eight years at Indian Railways. His new job effectively means that he is a doubtful starter for the upcoming Senior Nationals. “I don’t think I would be ready for the Senior Nationals as my mandatory policy training is in progress in Pune,” he says bluntly.
The wrestler, who studied in PVP College, Patoda, attained his first international success, winning the 55 kg gold at the 2011 Commonwealth Championship in Australia – the same country where seven years later he won the 57 kg gold in the 2018 Commonwealth Games. So, what prompted the gold winner of the 2018 Commonwealth Games to miss the 2018 Asian Games? He calls a spade a spade
Look, all gold winners were picked for the 2018 Asian Games without having to go through the trials, but I was told that I have to take the trials as there is a lot of competition in the 57-kg category, and although I was not happy with this move of the federation, I agreed to take the trials but sustained a knee injury and which is why I gave the 2018 Asiad a miss.
Rahul’s bronze medal effort came in the 61 kg category – a non-Olympic category and with the 57 kg berth for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics already sealed by India via Ravi Dahiya and also Bajrang Punia sealing the Olympic berth in the 65 kg category, Rahul has little hope of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But the grappler hasn’t given up yet.
“A medal in a World Championship is a great thing for me, and I will always cherish it. There are nearly ten months to go for the Tokyo Olympics, and anything can happen – there could be loss of form or an injury and although I don’t wish anything bad for any of my team-mates I will gear up and stay focussed. If not 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I can be in contention for 2024 Olympics – I know I will be around 33 by then but age should not be a barrier as you have seen with Sushil Kumar,” reckons the 28-year-old grappler exuding with dollops of confidence.