S R Dalvi (I) Foundation

Tea vendor to medalist !

चहा विक्रेता ते पदक विजेता !

Midday on a weekend isn’t usually rush hour on the Ahilyadevi Holkar road in the town of Sangli in South Maharashtra. But on Saturday afternoon, you can be sure a small crowd gathered around the beat-up 14-inch Videocon TV screen in the corner of the Sanket paan tapri (small shop). Outnumbering the regular customers, there would have been well-wishers and more than a few media persons. Everyone would have been glued to that tiny screen, watching intently as Sanket Sargar won India’s first medal of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, a silver.

At Birmingham, he snatched 113kg and clean and jerked 135 kg for a total of 248kg in the men’s 55kg weight division and wrote his name into the record books. He was chasing gold and was ahead after the snatch portion, but hurt himself on the second clean and jerk lift. He returned for the third attempt, but his right elbow was compromised. Opening India’s medal account means he’ll be the talk of the town, if not the country. #Sanket will trend on Twitter. The Prime Minister will likely post his congratulations. Among the regulars at that nondescript hole-in-the-wall shop, in a small town in western India, some might remember a time before the 21-year-old became famous. They could tell you of a time when Sanket was a young boy, eyes fixed on that hazy monitor, with dreams infinitely bigger and more vivid than a life making paan in the shop that shared his name.

Sanket remembers the moment very well. When he thinks the seed of winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games was firmly planted in his head. “I remember it very clearly,” he told Sportstar a few days back. “It was around 6am — very early in the morning — on April 5 in 2018. That was when Gururaja bhaiyaa (Poojari Gururaja) was competing in the Commonwealth Games in the 56kg category. I remember one customer wanted a masala paan, so that’s what I was making. At the same time, I was watching the weightlifting competition on the TV in the shop. Right then, I decided agli baar mai jaunga. Pakka I will be there. Jaunga hi jaaunga. Bas mehnat karna hai. Aur kya karna hai? (I decided the next time I’m going to be there for sure. The only thing I have to do is work hard. What else is there to it),” he recalls thinking.

At the time Sanket saw Gururaja winning a silver at the Gold Coast Games, he had already been training as a weightlifter for five years. It had not been his idea to become a weightlifter. That was the dream of his father, Mahadev Sargar. “I had always wanted to become a sportsperson. But I never had that opportunity. I was from a village, and my priority was to earn a living,” says Mahadev.

I felt if I had worked a little harder, I would have got gold. My dad said ‘ Kuch karna hai, toh mehnat karna padega. Warna dukan me baithna padega. (If I want to achieve something, I have to work hard, otherwise, I’d be working at the shop forever).’ Dad said he didn’t want us to stay in the dukan. He wanted us to have a good life. That’s why he would say you are getting a chance. Work hard. It’s in your hands. I realised then that if I didn’t give my best, I’d never get to the national level,” he says.

The Commonwealth Games then were a nearly unimaginable goal. It was made more challenging by the fact that Sanket did not just have to find the time to train but also manage the family’s shops. “In the morning, I’d go and manage the nashta center after I finished training and if my father was away. It was difficult to manage because I’d be tired after training but had to focus a lot at the shop. At the end of the day, you have to be very careful with the accounts, the payment of workers and the cost of materials. All that was very hard,” says Sanket. “There was no other option,” admits Mahadev. “If we had to make a living, if I had to provide for Sanket’s career, we needed someone to help at the shop,” he says.

But if Sanket kept persisting, his father backed him as much as he could. “We were not rich, but whatever I wanted, my father would arrange somehow. Some things might take longer, but I’d get it. Protein powder, which we need for a post-workout drink, is expensive, so I would have to tell two weeks in advance that I needed it. Then papa would take the time to arrange the money for it. He’d take a loan and pay for it,” Sanket says.

It was in 2019, a year after Sanket had first decided he too would make it to the Commonwealth Games, that he started making a mark at the national level. “Until then, I had been competing in the 49kg category. But after I moved up to the 55kg weight division, I started getting results. As my weight increased, I was able to improve my training intensity too. I was able to give more attention to my diet,” he says.

It was also then that he says he started appreciating his sport. “The thing I like most about weightlifting is that it is a clear game. Everything is in front of you. It’s not like boxing, where you don’t know who wins. The person who lifts the most, the person who has worked the hardest wins. That was why I felt I could also go to the Commonwealth Games. If I worked hard, I knew I could achieve it,” he says.

As he kept working, the results eventually started coming in. In 2020, Sanket won his first gold medal at the senior nationals in Kolkata. A year later, he would win his second national title.

Even as his profile rose, Sanket didn’t stop working at the paan shop. He says he even found some meaning in a job that had once seemed a burden. “I learned how to manage both of them. Sport is important, but you also have to learn the ways of living. That job helped me a lot. It helped me how to present myself, and how to talk to people. It also taught me how to deal with stress and control my emotions. We don’t have just one or two people coming in. Sometimes, you will get 300 customers coming in each day. You need to understand how to deal with them and serve them before they start getting impatient. You have to learn how to keep track of payments and bills. It teaches you how to manage different things at the same time. Above all, you have to learn how to be calm in these situations,” he says.

The lessons he learned on managing stress would eventually come in handy on the weightlifting platform. After his second national gold medal, he would finally join the national camp in Patiala, where his performance would improve even further. But when he failed to register a total at the 2021 World Championships (he was sixth in the snatch and would probably have finished fourth if he had made a single clean and jerk lift), Sanket’s chances of competing at the Commonwealth Games were in doubt. “I was under a lot of pressure at that time,” he admits.

When it mattered the most, he would perform. At the 2022 Singapore Open, Sanket would set a new Commonwealth record by posting a total of 256kg and securing his place in the Commonwealth Games.

Over the past few months, as the CWG neared, Sanket remained, for the most part, laser focused on the Games. “That dream I had in 2018? I’ve fulfilled half of it,” he had told Sportstar.

However, from time to time, he’ll think of the shop where it all started. “Some people might be embarrassed that they had to work in a tapri. In the past, my customers who knew I was a weightlifter would ask why I was working there. But it is part of who I am. The only thing is that earlier people knew it just as Sanket paan tapri. Now they should know it as Commonwealth Games medallist Sanket Paan tapri,” he says.

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