Commonwealth Games 2018: Wrestler Rahul Aware sets aside self doubts to end long wait for international glory

It was the biggest final of his career and Rahul Aware had the odds stacked against him. A niggling injury in his shoulder which he picked up while training on the day of his departure to Gold Coast was hurting. Despite his recent success at the domestic level, there were still murmurs in the coaching fraternity that he lacked the big match temperament for international events and only performed in trials. A thick veil of self-doubt hung heavily as he arrived in Gold Coast for his maiden Commonwealth Games. But the 26-year-old from Beed in Maharashtra overcame the pain and mental barrier to beat Canadian Steven Takahashi to secure the biggest victory of his career.

Commonwealth Games 2018: Wrestler Rahul Aware sets aside self doubts to end long wait for international glory

Rahul Aware (R) wrestles against Canada's Steven Takahashi during the men's freestyle 57 kg final. AFP

It has been a long wait for the wrestler to corner glory whose run-ins with the authorities grabbed headlines more than his achievements on the wrestling mat. Complaining of discrimination in selection, he had once decided not to board an international flight to Georgia where the wrestling squad was travelling for preparation.

However on Thursday, he ensured the spotlight was on him for all the right reasons. “There was a point when I wanted to quit the sport after I was not considered for the Rio Olympics. But I am glad that I continued to pursue the sport. I have been part of the senior team for almost ten years but I could never make it to the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games. I am glad the wait is finally over," said the recently-crowned Commonwealth Games champion in the 57 kg weight category.

He had his reasons for being aggrieved after the federation ignored the results of the trial before the 2016 Rio Olympics and he was sent to one of the tougher qualifying tournaments. Aware had then alleged than an easier qualifying tournament was offered to Sandeep Tomar, giving him an unfair advantage to make it to the Olympics. Sandeep won a bronze at the qualifying event and Aware’s Olympic dream was crushed. His exclusion, like the much hyped Narsingh Yadav-Sushil Kumar fracas before the Rio Games, opened up the North India versus Maharashtra divide in the wrestling circles.

“I was feeling the pressure in the final because I have never been in a summit showdown of such a big event. I had seen videos of Steven to prepare myself for this match but I made some errors initially which helped him to grab four points through a takedown," he added.

"He has moved on from the repeated unfair treatment meted out to him. I have told him to look ahead and I seriously believe that today’s win is just the start. Our target is the 2020 Olympics,” says Kaka Pawar, one of the famous wrestling coaches in Maharashtra who has trained Aware in his formative years.

Aware’s triumph in Gold Coast is being celebrated as one of the biggest successes of wrestling in Maharashtra. Despite a glorious past with the likes of Olympic medallist KD Jadhav, Commonwealth Games gold medallists Birajdar and Ramchandra Sarang, Maharashtra has lost its pride of place of in Indian wrestling to Haryana in last few decades. “Today’s victory of Aware is a watershed moment for wrestling in the state as it is the first gold medal by a wrestler from Maharashtra in a high-profile event after Sarang finished on top at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games, way back in 1982,’’ gushed Pawar.

Aware’s father Balasaheb was a talented wrestler who could not take up the sport seriously because of lack of financial support. But he wanted his son to fulfill his unrealised dream. One of the doyens of Maharashtra wrestling, Harishchandra Birajdar, took young Aware under his wings. After Birajdar’s death, Aware moved to Pune from Kolhapur to be trained by Kaka Pawar. “Aware is a very good wrestler in terms of his technique and strength. I am impressed with his fitele (leg lace) — a technique of twisting an opponent on their back while grabbing his legs-made famous by Yogeshwar Dutt,’’ says Kripa Shankar Bishnoi — a former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist who fought a young Aware in a national championship almost a decade ago.

According to Bishnoi, the biggest challenge for Aware will be to manage his weight and consistently deliver the goods in 57 kg weight category in top international events. Aware has been taking part in the 61 kg class in the national championship but since this weight category does not feature in international events such as the Olympics and the Asian Games, he lowers his weight to fit into the 57 kg class.

“The competition may not have been as strong as the Asian Games but this victory will give him a huge confidence boost that he can deliver under pressure on the big stage. Going by the current form, if Aware gets a good draw he has a bright chance of a medal at the Asian Games,’’ feels Pawar.

With wrestlers from Japan, Mongolia, Iran and Commonwealth countries in fray, Aware’s job is cut out for the Asian Games. And he will need to raise his game by several notches to ensure this performance was no flash in the pan.

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Updated Date: Apr 13, 2018 00:13:26 IST