Passion over money: Greco-Roman wrestler Sajan Bhanwal carves a niche for himself

The 18-year-old won India’s first Greco-Roman medal in 16 years at the World Junior Championships.

In Harayna’s wrestling mad villages, the local dangals drive the finances of the sport and grapplers naturally opt for the freestyle version to make quick bucks and normally shift to Greco-Roman at the insistence of the coach or after failing to make a mark in the former.

So when 18-year-old Sajan Kumar Bhanwal speaks of the “opportunity” that attracted him to Greco-Roman six years ago when he first went to see a wrestling training session in Pratap Sports School in Kharkhoda, it is quite possible that even those in the family would have wondered about his choice.

After all, Bhanwal had made to the school for his athletic prowess and the general viewpoint was that if wanted to take up wrestling, freestyle was probably a better career option.

Passion vs the lure of money

On August 5, the 18-year-old from Kasandi village proved all doubters wrong when he became the first Indian Greco-Roman wrestler in 16 years to win a World Junior Championship medal (bronze) beating Ali Erbay of Turkey in the 74kg category in Tampere, Finland.

Only four Indians have managed to win a Junior World Championship medal in Greco-Roman with Mukesh Khatri bagging the last bronze in 2001. Pappu Yadav is the only wrestler to win a gold in the event back in 1992.

“When I joined the school, I saw that there was a lot of opportunity for wrestling in Greco-Roman. [And], it was something different,” Bhanwal told The Field about his choice.

The 18-year-old looked at the category as an opportunity to rise faster than a heavily competitive freestyle structure but it had its own problems. While the annual dangals provided the freestylers with the required financial support to pursue a career, Bhanwal’s parents had to request the villagers to crowd fund his training and competition till he managed to break into the national set-up.

“The local competitions [in villages] are held mostly for money,” explains Bhanwal’s coach Om Prakash Dahiya. “In these competitions, the bouts are held for as much as Rs one or two lakh. When kids get into these competitions because of lure for money, freestyle wrestling is the first that catches the eye. Parents in the villages are also interested in making money out of these bouts.”

This means that an average wrestler ends up making about Rs 25000 per bout during the dangal season. Many Greco-Roman wrestlers also end up competing in these competitions to make some money and end up compromising with their technique and development program.

The journey onward

But Bhanwal insists that he is completely focused on making a career in Greco-Roman and hence did not opt for the short term approach of making money through the dangals. “This has definitely put pressure on my parents to raise funds for my training but I am happy that I have managed to win medals for the country,” he says.

Bhanwal bagged a bronze in the Asian Junior Championships in Chinese Taipei in June and then kept his head despite losing the second round bout against Akzhol Makhmudov in the Junior World Championship to finish on the podium through repechage.

“[At the Junior Asian Championships], I realised even Asian players win medals easily among the other international players in the world [in Greco-Roman],” he says. “So, I thought why can’t I go and win medals there [in Tampere].”

For Bhanwal who will transition into the senior wrestling circuit right away, winning medals is the only thing that counts. Even beyond making money. It was then on a determined note that Bhanwal concluded,“I want to win [more] medals at the world level in Greco-Roman. I want to make a name [for the country and myself] at the world level. This [Greco-Roman] is something different.”

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