In the last two years, Pawan Kumar has been grappling with injuries and an identity crisis. Despite being touted as one of the most talented youngsters in the country, his achievements were often eclipsed by the fame and star appeal of his wife – Geeta Phogat – the poster-child for Indian women wrestling.
Refusing to fade into anonymity after missing out on selections in a couple of international tournaments including the Commonwealth Games 2018, Pawan bounced back in style, winning the selection trials to make it to the Indian team for this year’s Asian Games, starting on 28 August.
With both Geeta and Babita of Bollywood blockbuster Dangal fame, failing to make the cut, Pawan will be the flagbearer of the Phogat legacy along with Geeta’s cousin Vinesh in Jakarta. The 24-year-old who booked his berth in the 86 kg freestyle wrestling, credits his wife and the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medallist for the turnaround.
"Geeta has been a great inspiration and she has been the pillar of strength when the chips were down. Being an Olympian and an experienced wrestler, she makes notes of my techniques during a bout and these come really handy." - Asian Games-bound Wrestler Pawan Kumar
Pawan asserted the marriage to the Phogat family has been a blessing despite the pressures of expectations.
Geeta’s father Mahavir, credited to have shaped the careers of his daughters and nieces, is known as a strict disciplinarian and a stern coach in the wrestling circuit. But when it comes to his son-in-law, Mahavir is more lenient.
“I get away being his damaad. The harshest comments after a bout are reserved for his daughters. But he takes a keen interest in my performances on the mat. There is always a phone call before and after a bout with tips about the opponent and where I went wrong,’’ adds Pawan about his famous father-in-law.
Pawan is aware about the legacy and the pressure of performance that have followed him since he married Geeta, five years elder to him.
"Getting married to the Phogat family will have its pressures but Pawan has handled it well. Even during the Asian Games trials last week, all my uncles and nephews travelled to the venue to cheer him on." - Geeta Phogat on her husband’s mental fortitude
“They asked me if their presence would make Pawan nervous but I knew he would be unaffected and their support would motivate him.’’ says Geeta.
“Another drawback of marrying into the Phogat family is the conversations over the dinner table is always over wrestling, be it about the camps or the forthcoming tournaments. There is no life for us beyond the wrestling mat.’’
Despite their couple of years of courtship and almost two years of marriage, Pawan is still starstruck by Geeta’s achievements.
“I always knew Geeta as a talented wrestler whom I met frequently during various camps and domestic tournaments. It was only after watching the movie Dangal that I realised her true worth. Her gold medal in Commonwealth Games transformed the lives of so many girls in rural Haryana and Delhi.”
Pawan continued, “It is incredible how so many current women wrestlers took up the sport because of her. Her life and her struggles continue to inspire me.’’
Pawan is a bronze medallist in the Commonwealth Games in 2014, but the competition in the Asian Games is expected to very stiff with the likes of world champion Hasan Yazdani from Iran in fray.
(The author is a television producer working with different sports networks in India and abroad. He has extensively covered previous editions of Asian Games and Commonwealth Games for both print and television.)
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