A Haryana-born Aussie pehelwan

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Melbourne wrestler Vinod Kumar heads to Rio 

Vinod Kumar says his eyes welled up as the Australian national anthem was played to celebrate his gold medal achievement.

India mein janam liya, par Australia ke prati mera lagaav pura hai,” he tells Indian Link. (“I may have been born in India but I love Australia.”)

Vinod Kumar wrestler.Indian Link

In March this year, Vinod won the 2016 Oceania Wrestling Championships in New Zealand, en route to qualifying for the upcoming Rio Olympic Games.

Weeks later, he had secured his spot in the Australian team after finishing in the top two at the African/Oceania Olympic qualifiers at Algiers, Algeria.

He will represent his adopted country in Greco-Roman wrestling in the 66kg category.

Mein jaan laga doonga ji,” he says with conviction, the Haryanvi in him coming to the fore.

I’m going to give it my all.

The 33-year-old Melbourne pehelwan (wrestler) is among four wrestlers in the Australian Olympic team. Russian-born Ivan Popov joins him in the Greco-Roman event (130kg) and Sahit Prezreni and Talgat Ilyasov will participate in the 65kg and 74kg freestyle events. Sahit Prizreni represented Albania in the 2004 and 2008 Games, and was even flag-bearer of his former country at Beijing.

Vinod Kumar wrestler.Indian Link
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Vinod was born in a farming community in Sonepat in Haryana. He was introduced to wrestling at the very young age of eight.

“As a young man, I got to train in Guru Satpal’s akhada (wrestling academy) in Delhi,” Vinod reminisces. His time under the stewardship of one of India’s leading wrestlers and wrestling coaches Satpal Singh was spent alongside peers such as Sushil Kumar, two-time Olympic medallist, and Pawan Kumar who also won laurels for India. Together, they competed at national level championships.

Vinod’s nascent wrestling career took a back seat for two years following an accident. “People wondered whether pehelwani hogi ki nahin (I would return to wrestling). I took to dangal ki kushti (traditional Indian dirt wrestling) and competed in Punjab, Himachal, Maharashtra, wherever I got a chance. Aaath sau nau sau kushti lada, kharcha nikal ne ke liye. (I took part in some 800-900 fights, to eke out a living). Winning the competitions slowly got my confidence back up.”

Vinod Kumar wrestler.Indian Link

Meanwhile the success of acquaintances such as Sandeep Singh, a wrestler who moved to Australia and represented his adopted country in the Olympics, set him thinking about migrating.

He came to Australia in 2010.

He trained at the United Wrestling Club under former Wresting Australia President, Kuldip Bassi. The awards began to pile up – six so far including first prize at the 2015 Australian National Championships in Canberra; first prize at the 2015 Australia Cup Championships and Oceania Trials, and first prize at the 2016 Australian National Championships in Melbourne, before the New Zealand and Algeria victories for Olympic qualification.

Vinod Kumar wrestler.Indian Link

In six years in Australia, Vinod hasn’t missed a day of training.

“It’s not easy,” he admits. “In India, we would wake in the morning and train; then eat and rest, and then train again. Out here, I have to factor in work as well. I work as a courier. I wake at 5am, train for some 2 – 2 ½ hours and then get to work. After work I go to the gym and then train again, mostly 3-4 hours.”

On weekends, Vinod also plays kabaddi with the Melbourne United Sports Club.

He claims he’s going to ramp up his training schedule in the lead up to Rio.

Akele dum se yahaan tak pahuncha hoon (I’ve reached this far solely on my own strengths), so I’m going to try my hardest! My coach Kostya Emerkovic motivates me immensely, and I’d like to win for him too.”

Of course he’s watching his diet closely as well, piling up on those vitamin and protein supplements. And he’s motivating himself by watching films like Paan Singh Tomar and reading and listening to Osho Rajneesh.

The last time Australia brought home an Olympic wrestling medal was London 1948.

And what’s beyond Rio?

Quick as a flash, Vinod replies, “2018 Commonwealth Games!”

Vinod is the second Indian-origin Olympian in Australia, the first being Sandeep Singh who represented Australia in freestyle wrestling at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. After that, Rupinder Singh donned the green and gold for women’s wrestling at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Vinod claims he did not know how to sing along to the national anthem at the New Zealand podium earlier this year, having become an Australian citizen only months before. Of course he recognised it very well though. But now, he hopes to sing as the flag is raised.

Here’s hoping a community of 400,000 will form the chorus.