His isn’t the first name that will come to your mind when we talk about Indian wrestlers at Rio 2016. For all the wrong reasons, there is Narsingh Yadav. There is Yogeshwar Dutt, India’s only Olympic medal-winning wrestler at the Games this year. And there are the three women wrestlers – Vinesh Phogat, Babita Kumari and Sakshi Malik. Their incredible journey to Rio was documented even before the Sakshi’s moment of glory.
Sandeep Tomar is not the most popular name in Indian wrestling, but when he his place on the mat on August 19, he will be hoping to change that.
The 25-year-old from Malakpur in Uttar Pradesh has the distinction of winning a medal at every international tournament he has participated in. A total of four gold medals and four bronze medals, his coach Kuldeep Singh says. And yet, his route to Rio was not straightforward by any means.
He secured an Olympic quota berth with a bronze-medal finish in the 1st World Olympic Qualifying tournament in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia. And that was not without drama. His selection was questioned by his own teammates — the more experienced Rahul Aware was left fuming when Sandeep was sent to the Mongolia event ahead of him. But Sandeep grabbed his first chance and did what Rahul could not in the previous qualifiers — secure an Olympic quota.
“I knew it was my first and last chance,” Sandeep told ScoopWhoop in an exclusive interview before leaving for Rio. “It was then or never and I had to prove a point, and I was so glad I did.”
After losing an extremely tight semi-final bout, Sandeep defeated Alexandru Chirtoaca of Moldova 10-0 to win the bronze and booked his ticket for Rio from Mongolia. From then on, he has had a one-track mind: win a medal in Rio.
“I have only one goal. To return with a medal from Rio. Though I won the bronze in that event to qualify for Olympics, I made some mistakes in the semi-final. And that is what I have been working on since. Because I don’t want to take it easy till I perfect my game,” says Sandeep.
Watch him here.
Sandeep, who is an employee with Indian Navy, comes from a village known for its wrestling. When you ask him how tough the journey has been from Malkhpur to Rio he is quick to shoot that down, saying, “Everyone has difficulties in their life, mine are nothing special.”
He is focussed on what’s ahead, and what is ahead is the biggest challenge of his life yet.
“His biggest strength is his ability to go for the attack from the word go, but he sometimes doesn’t focus on his defence enough,” Kuldeep said. “That is what we have been working on. But with Sandeep, I have never had to worry about his training. He is always the first one to complete the routines and never shies away from extra work.”
Kuldeep, the national team coach along with Jagminder Singh, says Sandeep’s tactical awareness is also a big plus.
“I know my weaknesses,” adds Sandeep. “And that is all I have been working on, to iron out the flaws in my game.”
Asked what his hopes for Rio are, the otherwise reticent wrestler, doesn’t bat an eyelid when he says: “Pray for me, I am sure I will return with the gold. Pucca.”
For the Indian contingent who will be shattered by Narsingh Yadav’s ban, they will be hoping Sandeep stays true to his word.