When you enter Ravi Dahiya’s room, the first thing that catches the eye is the plethora of medals he has won. But when you scour a little, there is a picture of Sushil Kumar in the corner. It might seem odd to many, but Rakesh Dahiya, Ravi’s father says, that the picture has a big role in his son’s journey to become an Olympic medalist.
Ravi Dahiya was at his home in Nahri village, Sonepat, when Sushil Kumar reached the bronze medal match at the 2008 Olympics. Just like any other budding wrestler, he too sat in front of the box TV cheering for India
“When Sushil Kumar won the bronze medal, he was so happy. He came to me and said ‘papa manne Sushil pahelwan jaisa kaam karna hai. Mei bhi champion banunga (Even I want to be like Sushil Kumar. I’ll be a champion one day),” Rakesh says proudly.
Little did he know that unlike many kids who say these things in excitement, Ravi Dahiya meant everything. He had set a goal and was ready to chase the dream which was finally achieved in Tokyo.
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On Wednesday, the youngster finally got a chance to step out of the "BIG MAN" of Indian wrestling's shadow and carve his own destiny.
Ravi Dahiya, who had a brilliant morning, was involved in a thrilling bout against Kazakhstan's Nurislam Sanayev. He found himself trailing 9-2 by the end of the first period.
However, the grit and never-say-die attitude he is known for helped him sail through to the final. Ravi came from behind and brilliantly overpowered the Kazakh and won with a pinfall.
You talk to anyone in his village, and they would say “iski kismet mei tha yea hona. Sushil pahelwan ka burra waqt shuru hua aur iska Olympic medal ek saath hua. Kuch ache karam hi kiye honge pichle janam mei”. (It was his destiny. Sushil Kumar's fall from grace and Ravi Dahiya's Olympic medal happened the same year. He must have done something good in past life).
And it seems like destiny. In fact, both the wrestlers have roots at Chhatrsaal academy and trained under the same the coach. Incidentally, India's most decorated wrestler Sushil going to jail and Ravi becoming the first Indian wrestler to secure at least one silver since his predecessor's 2012 glory is happening around the same time.
However, wrestling did not come to Ravi Dahiya by accident. He was born in a family of wrestlers. While his father was an amateur wrestler, his uncles have all represented Haryana at the national level.
Ravi was introduced to wrestling when he was six years old. His father would carry him to the fields where his friend Hansraj used to run an akhada.
The quiet and shy Ravi would train there for four years, before Hansraj recommended Rakesh to get the wrestler enrolled at Chhatrasal Akhada.
Located in the hustle and bustle of New Delhi, the wrestling academy is believed to be a factory that churns out Olympians. Started by Mahabali Satpal, a 1982 Asian Games gold medalist, the nursery has produced the likes of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt.
Bajrang Punia, who will begin his campaign on August 6 in the 65 kg weight category, had also trained there for a brief period.
Hansraj says, Ravi Dahiya was not the most promising amongst the wrestlers that trained had the grit and determination to achieve something.
“We use to call him Moni (someone who doesn’t talk much). He never showcased any born talent but he had the hunger to learn. If I would ask him to give me 100 push ups and 100 squats he would it without questioning."
"If you ask me, I never thought he would become a great wrestler. We had many better wrestlers including Amit Dahiya. But it was Ravi’s destiny which was written long back before he was born. I was just a medium by god to give him direction,” Hansraj says.
And to some extent he was right. Amit Dahiya was the youngest Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics in 2012. He was dubbed the "next big thing" for Indian wrestling.
Ravi Dahiya, on the other hand, was a mixed bag during his cadet years. But the difference between the two, as Hansraj points out, was their personality.
“Ravi always respected his elders. He never took grudge about things and knew how to make relationships. Amit, though, was more talented lacked some of these personality traits that led to his downfall”
However, personality can win you hearts, not Olympic medals.
Ravi Dahiya made a promising start to his wrestling career. He won a silver medal at the Cadet Asian Championships in 2013. In Chhatrasal, everyone described that victory as the start of a new dawn.
However, Rakesh ensured Ravi learned to respect the sacrifices his family had made. Rakesh became the bread-earner of his family at a young age. He would toil hard in the farm fields, taken on lease, for years but never let the struggles come in the way of Ravi’s training.
The routine meant Rakesh woke up at 3:30 am, walked about 5kms to the nearest Railway station, got down at Azadpur and then walked another 2kms to the Chhatrasal Stadium.
After coming back, Rakesh would work in the fields and it continued for 12 years till the COVID-19 induced lockdown halted the routine in 2020. During those visits, Rakesh said he would just share the good bits with Ravi as he did not want him to get worried about family.
Although Ravi was never disturbed by his family, his destiny had something else planned to halt his wrestling career.
For almost three years since his first international medal, the youngster struggled to stamp his authority in the lightweight category. He won two medals in six competitions in that time span.
Rakesh, who was worried about his son, then asked Ravi if he wanted to continue wrestling. To this, he replied with a nod.
But while Ravi continued training hard, his body had somewhat stopped responding. A worried Rakesh decided to get him tested and it was discovered he had an iron deficiency.
“We had done everything possible. But nothing seem to work. He worked hard, but there were no results. His body also did not move very smoothly on the mat. So, we decided to get him tested at AIIMS and we found out there was iron deficiency,” Rakesh says.
It took months for Ravi to recover completely but as soon as he did, a medal came knocking. The 23-year-old won the U23 Asian Championship silver medal in 2018.
“It was all thanks to god. Had we not known about it, who knows what would happen. But it was all written in Ravi’s destiny, so he faced it,” says Rakesh.
Post 2018, Ravi was one of India's most promising wrestlers. His meteoric rise, as his uncle Anil puts it, is because of his consistent focus on one goal, the Olympics.
He narrates an incident when Ravi chose to wrestle over the luxury of life.
“One day when he was back home, I asked him to learn motorcycle but he refused, saying he does not need it. Well, he is a young guy but nothing interests him except wrestling. He does not want to buy new clothes, shoes, nothing, all he talks about is wrestling,” Anil.
Ravi Dahiya booked his Olympic ticket after winning bronze at the 2019 world championships. The years of hard work had finally paid off as he became Nahri’s third Olympian after Mahavir Singh (1980 Moscow, 1984 Los Angeles) and Amit Dahiya (London 2012).
To someone who doesn't know Ravi Dahiya, they would say he worked really hard to reach Tokyo. But ask those in Nahri village, they would say destiny has played played its plot.
In 2018, the wheat harvest in 10 out of Rakesh’s 20 ‘keela’ was burnt due to a fault of the tractor supplier. While other villagers extracted compensation of the tune of Rs 15000 per keela from him, Rakesh did nothing of that sort.
“‘Jo hua so hua’, I could not demand money from him. And the villagers now think God has rewarded me by giving success to Ravi,” he said.
The villagers believe that it his Rakesh’s honesty and good deeds that helped Ravi.
Whatever the reason, from tomorrow, Nahri will be marked on the map of India and the Dahiya family will be in the limelight of it.
However, Rakesh says he will continue to practice farming in those 10 acre lands which yielded a CHAMPION!!