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India's Rio 2016 Dreams: Wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt Targets Encore in Swan Song

File photo of Indian wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. (Reuters)

File photo of Indian wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt. (Reuters)

Another Olympic medal, irrespective of the colour, will turn Yogeshwar into a wrestling icon at par with his long-time friend and team-mate Sushil Kumar.

New Delhi: His first Olympics was Athens 2004. It was more a learning experience than anything to write home about. At Beijing four years later, he suffered a heartbreak, losing in the last 10 seconds of his quarter-final. Between Beijing and London 2012, he was told his career was over due to ligament damage in both knees. But he learned to walk again and wrestled to a gold in the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games. But his back gave in the same year, leaving him out of action for six months. And then he bowed out in the opening round of 2011 World Championship. He didn't give up, qualified for the London Games, and when he beat the Korean in the bronze-medal match, a set of cartwheels and a back-flip confirmed that there's lot more muscle and bone left in those dodgy knees.

Yogeshwar Dutt - or Pandit Ji as his close ones call him - will once again shoulder India's hopes at the biggest stage, this time on the wrestling mats laid out at the Rio Olympics in Brazil.

It was the sight of Leander Paes wearing a bronze medal at Atlanta 1996 that, by Yogeshwar's own admission, lit the fire of winning an Olympic medal in him. But in his words, it took him "three Olympics Games and a lifetime of pain to finally receive that medal".

Perhaps based on those grounds of introspection Yogeshwar has announced the Rio Games to be his last Olympics.

However, the knees that endured the back-flip in London haven't stopped acting up, keeping Yogeshwar more out than in competition since fulfilling his dream of standing on the podium at the biggest stage. Add to that the pressure of double Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar not there in India's eight-man contingent, the 34-year-old knees may feel the weight even more this time.

Multiple injuries and a series of corrective surgeries could also have taken a lot out of the man whose famous leg-flipping move, the 'fitlle', makes wrestling fans go up and down until the helpless opponent raises a white flag.

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"Once the opponent is locked in that move, there is no way he can escape," he says in the book My Olympic Journey by Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose.

While doing that to North Korea's Ri Jong-Myong for his London 2012 bronze, Yogeshwar didn't think about the medal but to keep twisting and turning his rival until the referee ended the match. Such was his hunger to emulate Leander.

"I had no option but to win that medal. I desperately wanted it and knew it was probably my last chance, considering my chequered injury record. I also knew that I could not go through another four-year period like the one I had just undergone," he says in the book.

But the man from Sonepat's Bhainswal Kalan village has come through, braving injuries and scalpels, standing tall as the flag-bearer of India's wrestling hopes in Brazil's carnival city. And en route, he won gold medals at the 2014 Asian Games and Commonwealth Games (CWG).

With less than a week left for the Games to start on August 5, Yogeswhar, along with the rest of wrestling contingent, is training in Georgia before heading to Rio. And being the only wrestler in the team with previous Olympic experience, he will have to double up as a mentor to ensure the other seven debutants (four men, three women) don't feel out of place when introduced to the magnitude the Games throw up.

Yogeshwar's will be the culmination of a champion's journey who convinced his family of teachers that he belongs to kushti and wants to turn into a successful pehelwan moving from the sand-pit akharas in Haryana to the synthetic mats around the world.

From the 55-kg rookie wrestler in Athens to the 60-kg bronze-medal winner in London and then the 65-kg gold-medal winner at 2014 Asiad and CWG, Yogeshwar has had to move a kilogram up to fit in the renewed 66-kg category at the Rio Games.

Besides, the trainers and Yogeshwar himself will have to keep an eye on his knees despite him having put in a huge effort to be at the top of his fitness in his swan song. But Pandit Ji won't flinch or cringe even in pain, for he knows that another Olympic medal, irrespective of the colour, will turn him into a wrestling icon at par with his long-time friend and team-mate Sushil.

(Excerpts from the book 'My Olympic Journey' are published after permission from the authors Digvijay Singh Deo and Amit Bose)

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