An elite raider, a VIVO Pro Kabaddi champion, an Asian Games gold medallist, a World Champion and an Arjuna Award winner, Anup Kumar has been there and done it all. But fame and fortune were not at all on Kumar's agenda when he had started off playing the sport. Like for many boys his age, kabaddi was all about having fun for Kumar.
But all that suddenly changed when he had to share in the responsibility of helping his family make ends meet. Being put in a tough spot at a young age, there was a big decision which Kumar had to take.
"It was in 2004. My brother said that I had just one year to make a living through sports," Kumar tells prokabaddi.com. "If I didn't, then I'd have to pursue my higher studies or get a job instead."
That ultimatum finally made Kumar realise what he valued most in his life. He wasn't willing to give up on his passion and so his aim was to get a job where he could continue to play the sport, starting with his village's kabaddi team.
"I remember that year I didn't miss a single tournament," recollects Kumar. "Previously, I used to drop out of tournaments at the drop of a hat if I was feeling lazy or not feeling up to it. But at that time I wanted more and more people to know my name so that I can make an impression on the team coaches. When you play against department sides in local tournaments, the coaches always notice the good players."
While his kabaddi team struggled, Kumar starred. He earned a lot of praise from opposition coaches, who would often tell him to stay in touch in order to get a trial. Eventually, he would meet a certain coach from the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force), who invited Kumar to represent their side for his first professional opportunity.
"I didn't have a mobile phone then," recalls Kumar with a smile. "He gave me his number and all I was wondering was how I will remember it. So, I wrote it down on my hand. He asked me to keep in touch and assured me a job."
Keeping it cool
He eventually got a trial and was selected. From there, his perseverance led his inclusion in the national side as well. But once in the dressing room things quickly changed for a young Kumar, who recalled being intimated by the senior members of the squad who were big names in the sport at the time. But he saw that as another ultimatum to up his game and earn their respect.
"I used to maintain a distance from players like Rakesh Kumar, Dinesh, Pankaj Shirsat," said Kumar. "I was very young and seeing all these stalwarts made me a little nervous.
"So, I just focused on the training and gave it my all so that my efforts might draw their attention. After a couple of camps, all the seniors became familiar with me," he says proudly.
It's this trait that has defined him. In pressure situations, even the strongest crack; but not Kumar. This almost Zen-like attitude on the mat, even with the pressure that came with leading a team, earned him the moniker of Captain Cool. While people appreciate this attitude, the work that has gone behind it is known by but a few.
"It is not that I don't get upset," he explains. "It is just that, over the years, I have learned to control and channelise it."
However, Kumar warned against mistaking his calm attitude for a lack of aggression.
"Aggression and anger are two completely different things," Kumar said. "My aim is to win the game and anger doesn't help in winning games."
He has been winning every battle that has been thrown at him since that ultimatum from his brother. It's little wonder that he is one of the nation's ultimate sportsperson.