From his small village in Punjab, Avtar Singh is headed to Rio. The force behind his success, Avtar says, is his parents. They got him started in judo and when Avtar's coach held him back, they told him not to quit. They mortgaged their house to help Avtar participate internationally. Their faith paid off and Avtar is the first Indian to represent India in Judo 90kg category at the Olympics.
All roads lead to the Olympics
Avtar comes from Kothe Ghurala village, 2km from Gurdaspur, Punjab. Gurdaspur boasts almost 30 judo clubs and most families have at least one person who practices the martial art. The Judo Federation of India (JFI) even opened a national centre here.
Avtar's father Shingara Singh works as a helper in the local government hospital. His mother Sukhvinder Kaur is a homemaker. When Avtar was younger, they worried about positively channelling his energy and mischievousness. They would never have the resources to bail him if he got in trouble.
Avtar with his proud parents
Their way of making sure he didn't "stray" was to tire him out. Avtar worked in rice and wheat fields in his village. When it wasn't enough they got him started in judo after school. To their surprise, he excelled at it. Judo transformed Avtar and they saw it. He matured into a disciplined, sincere judoka.
By 2008, Avtar easily dominated all contenders in his weight-category in Gurdaspur, towering over his opponents at 6'4''. But there was a tough challenge yet. Local sports-politics made coaches overlook Avtar for the state-level competitions. This hit him quite hard.
Avtar at the Grand Prix 2016
In Judo, the only way to get ahead is to participate in tournaments. Performance in tournaments determines one's place in the rankings, which in turn decides how far you can go in the sport. And only the national federation can send your application. Avtar was deeply disappointed and had decided to quit, but his father refused to let him, saying, "This is not when you quit. The game has just begun."
His parents made it their personal mission to make sure that their son had all the chances he needed. Avtar had to have the right diet and money for the opportunities he needed. Things improved and in 2010, Avatar was spotted and coached by Arjuna awardee Yashpal Solanki. In 2011, he joined the Punjab Police as an assistant sub-inspector and that was when the family stopped living in fear of crippling poverty. Avtar also got financial support from JSW sports. By 2015, Avtar's talent was acknowledged by the best in India.
Veteran judoka Cawas Billimoria gives Avtar special training on using his height to best advantage
This April, the Judo Grand Prix was in Ankara, Turkey. It was this tournament that finally clinched his spot for the Olympics. To facilitate this trip, Avtar's parents encashed all their savings.
Avtar remembers sitting in his room after he heard how much his parents had invested in sending him to Turkey. "I really wanted to go, because this was a big match, but I didn't want my parents to lose all their money," he says. Avtar repaid his parents' faith by using these six matches over the year to jump 109 ranks up.
Showing off Avtar's trophies and medals
"I had a small salary and all these years, I felt helpless to help him achieve what his talent deserves," his father relates. But now, he is relieved. Avtar's younger brother, Jagtar, has also followed in older brothers footsteps and has become an accomplished judoka.
Avtar's parents have never seen him in a tournament
In Avtar's words, "My parents were obsessed with my success. They never doubted I'd be here. The day my father heard that I'd qualified, he was so emotional that he couldn't speak." For all their contributions to his success, they have never gone to a competition with Avtar. "We have seen him on TV, though," says his mother.
They need money to purchase flight tickets and pay for accommodation and expenses. It is a matter of great pride for the nation that a prodigy reached the Olympics despite so many hurdles. This occasion can be happier for Avtar if his parents can make it to Rio and support him as he fights what could be the most important judo match of his life.
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