Ex-truck driver Sonaba Gongane eyes wrestling glory

Nitin Sharma
Sonaba Gongane won silver in the 61kg category at the nationals in Jalandhar.

A silver medal at the wrestling nationals is a big achievement for anyone, especially one who had once quit the sport and drove a truck — without licence — to support himself and his family for four years.

Sonaba Gongane Tanaji had to settle for second place in the 61kg category at the nationals in Jalandhar last week, losing to World U-23 championship silver medallist Ravinder. But he has come a long way from the time he rode a pick-up truck throughout the day for four years. Those memories came rushing back for the 23-year-old when he saw a mini pick-up truck parked just outside the tournament venue.

“I wanted to put the medal on the mini truck and remember all the days when I drove a similar vehicle, sometimes for more than 14 hours in the day, to support myself and my family,” the Kolhapur grappler said.

“When I started wrestling in 2006 at the village akhada, my father's health was a big concern and we couldn't earn as much as we should have from our 4.5 acre of land. That's why, three years later, I quit training at the akhada and bought a mini pick-up truck after taking loan of Rs 1.5 lakh. I would manage to save Rs 400-500 after buying diesel for the truck. I didn't have a licence and wouldn't enter towns for fear of being caught. A year later, I exchanged the truck for a bigger tempo after taking another loan of Rs 3 lakh.”

READ | Sunil Kumar completes hat-trick of Greco-Roman titles

It was a chance meeting with 2008 Youth Commonwealth Games champion Ranjeet Nalawade at the Pune Railway station that brought Sonaba back to wrestling in 2013 and he started making progress through the ranks. He first won a bronze at the Cadet Nationals before becoming state champion.

“Nalawade bhai was the main reason that I resumed training and when I won the bronze medal at the cadet nationals, my father distributed sweets in the village,” he remembers.

In 2017, Sonaba claimed his first medal at the senior level – a bronze in the 61 Kg category in the nationals at Indore. He had also joined the Maratha Regiment in the Army by then, and is a Havildar now.

It was the year when his father suffered a paralysis attack but his job with the Army meant that Sonaba could support his family financially. Last year, the youngster had to miss the nationals due to injury but won the title in the mud wrestling nationals at Pune. He also reached the quarterfinals at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, where he lost to Gadzhimurad Rashidov of Russia.

READ | No dope testing at wrestling nationals

The accolades kept coming for Sonaba this year with a silver medal at the Asian U-23 Championships in Mongolia.

The youngster has also been sparring with 2019 World Championship bronze medallist Bajrang Punia in the national camp and considers him his idol, even though a freak injury during one of those sessions kept him out of action for a while.

“I often seek tips from Bajranj bhai and he always helps me. I suffered a shoulder injury as Bajrang bhai's hand slipped due to sweat from the grip in practice, but things like these happen. Apart from Bajrang bhai, I also talk with (world championship bronze medallist) Rahul Aware bhai. We fought in the Maharashtra dangal last year where I lost 6-9. I plan to shift to 65 Kg category next year and my target is the CWG and Asian Games podium,” said Sonaba.

National coach Jagmandar Singh believes avoiding injuries will be key to Sonaba's success in coming years.

“He has the willpower and stamina to succeed but his style of wrestling is more prone to injuries. Perhaps he did not put much focus on technique during his early days but is improving with time. If he can avoid injuries, he can win more medals,” said Singh.