Ravi Dahiya moves around with a quiet swagger. His unruly mop drenched in sweat, biceps glistening and heart pumping, he reaches the top of the rope tied 15 feet above in four rhythmic pulls as a bunch of young hopefuls watch in admiration. The cycle continues till the men training are spent, after which the group heads for a gym session.
The daily grind is integral to Dahiya’s build-up. He will grapple for gold in the 57kg at the Commonwealth Games on Saturday. The gulf in class between the world No 2 and others—his nearest rival, Nigeria’s Welson Ebikewenimo, is ranked 36 places below him—means it will likely be a smooth passage to the podium.
Dahiya, 24, is not taking anything for granted. “I don’t believe any competition is easy or should be taken lightly. I will be gunning for gold,” he said before leaving for Birmingham.
A man of few words, Dahiya is also a creature of contradictions. Almost sheepish off the mat, he turns into an inexorable phenomenon on it. A clear head that finds peace in chaos. A neatly arranged trophy cabinet placed delicately in a dishevelled hovel reeking of drying sweat and damp clothing. Supplement stacks strewn around, fellow wrestlers milling about, a Hindi translation of David Schwartz’s bestseller ‘The Magic of Thinking Big’ lying on his messy bed— trying to decipher Dahiya is an exercise in futility.
Then, there are A4 sheets pasted on every wall, ensuring he never once loses sight of the larger goal. These are prints of the Paris 2024 gold medal. So consumed is Dahiya with this singular purpose that he has pasted it in his coach Arun Kumar’s room too.
“He spends a lot of time here, so he thought his goal should be right in front of him wherever he goes,” says Kumar, a former international wrestler who has groomed Dahiya since 2008 at Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium.
There’s also a poster that spells out his career goals: Multiple world championships medals, multiple Olympics medals and becoming world No 1. It’s at once scary and surreal to think of the pressure Dahiya puts himself under.
“There’s none, actually,” he laughs. “I believe in my abilities. This is all I want from life. All this never lets me waver from my goal. Perhaps the only change that has happened to me post Olympics is that I am more focussed on my ultimate goal given that I faltered at the final hurdle in Tokyo. I can’t settle for anything less than gold now,” he says.
“Contact sports are quite unpredictable. Sometimes you err in the final second to cede advantage, sometimes the body is not ready. Wrestling is not a quantifiable sport, unlike athletics. It all depends on how your body is feeling on the day and whether you are able to execute the technique properly. All this makes every bout challenging.
“Besides, who wants to finish second when you can finish first?”
That didn’t happen in Tokyo. Dahiya says, “My time will come. There’s no point thinking too far ahead. A good CWG will give me confidence ahead of September’s World Championships, which is the biggest competition for me this year.”
He enters CWG on the back of some fine results. His Tokyo silver was followed by wins at Yasar Dogu and Asian Championships before he injured his left toe while sparring on May 9. The condition called bone marrow edema demanded four weeks rest, but Dahiya was back to train in three weeks. He bossed the CWG trials but a premature return to action led to a recurrence of the injury.
“Usually such sprain takes 7-8 weeks to heal. His expected time to return to training was June 20, but he took to the mat on June 6. Five days later the injury recurred. He resumed mat training on July 3 and sparring sessions resumed a week later,” Dahiya’s physiotherapist Munesh Kumar said. While the injury has healed, Dahiya spars with his foot taped.
Another rigorous task for Dahiya is making the weight. The 57kg wrestler weighs 61-62 kg and the process to shed the extra kilos begins two weeks before the competition. “Honestly, cutting weight is more difficult than actual grappling,” he says. “No matter how many times you do it, your body never gets used to it.”
While wrestlers stay in a caloric deficit stage when shedding weight, they have to simultaneously increase the intensity of their workouts, not just to chisel skills, but to sweat more and lose water weight. The liquid consumption during and post workouts also goes down.
Dahiya loses about 250-300 grams per mat session, and post replenishment the net weight loss is roughly 50 grams per day. The countback continues till he hits his competition weight, on the eve of his bout.
“It is tough. The food is right in front of you but you can’t eat it. The toughest bit is cutting down on water intake. The throat gets parched after a workout, but sometimes we have to make do with one or two sips. After a while, it starts affecting us and it is natural for some wrestlers to be irritable in the days leading up to a bout,” explained Dahiya.
“All I tell myself in such moments is I am doing his for the country. That’s when I think of the Olympic gold I have to win.”
Dahiya’s fat percentage hovers around 11 %, which drops to 10 % by the time he is ready to compete.
“He has excellent lean muscle mass and his VO2 max readings must be close to 85 %,” says Munesh. “We haven’t felt the need to get the HR Max (heart rate max) or VO2 tests done, but his readings will be right up there.”
Dahiya’s supreme fitness, forged by years of excruciating drills at Chhattrasal, manifests itself in his mat craft and endless stamina. The wrestlers practice in a series of relentless 10-minute bouts (against the six-minute matches) from their pre-teens, making sure their strength and stamina are never in the red. Dahiya is known to swim through three mat sessions—or 30 minutes of wrestling—without dropping intensity.
“He never shies away from hard work,” says coach Sharma. “It is very natural for him to take it easy. He is an Olympic medallist, has enough money to afford a comfortable life, and is well known across the wrestling world. He still yearns for something.”
That something is right there, on A4 sheets pasted on the wall facing him.