Boxers run up steep sand dunse pursued by the unrelenting voice of their trainer who believes his unusual preparation methods will help India succeed at the Olympics.
India hopes duels in the desert will unearth Olympic boxing gold
BHIWANI // Just before dawn, 100 boxers run up a steep sand dune pursued by the unrelenting voice of their trainer who believes his unusual preparation methods will help India succeed at the Olympics.
As the fighters try to catch their breath at the top, Jagdish Singh orders them to roll back down the dune with their hands held behind their backs and their eyes tightly closed.
They continue their gruelling workout with punching exercises into the sand, wrestling until they are covered in sweat and grit, and then washing in a nearby brick well.
In the evening, the long day's exertions finish with dancing to Bollywood film music to relax tired muscles.
Singh has prepared two fighters for the London Olympics, and he hopes that his unique desert training camp at Bhiwani, 120 kilometres west of New Delhi, will enable India to secure gold in the ring.
"My motto is simple: put in the hard work and everything else will fall in place," Singh, 51, says as he supervises an early-morning session with his charges, many of whom are just teenagers.
"Training in the desert strengthens their leg muscles. It is more important for boxers to have stronger legs than hands."
Singh, a former national-level fighter, is the figurehead of the boxing scene in Bhiwani, where the sport has been an important part of life since a string of professional fighters emerged from the region more than 40 years ago.
Bhiwani is a testing and remote environment to grow up in, with dusty fields yielding poor harvests and residents often having to walk several miles to fetch drinking water.
With industry scarce and unemployment high, boxing offers the chance of a better life - and teenage boys and girls rush to sign on to Singh's demanding regime.
"All the physical struggle has made us rough and tough," says Singh. "Our children are stronger compared to those from the other regions. The hardships have turned out to be a blessing in disguise."
Bhiwani, a part of Haryana state bordering New Delhi, first found itself on the boxing map when Hawa Singh won gold at the 1966 Asian Games.
Hawa won another gold at the 1970 Bangkok Asian Games, cultivating a boxing culture that nurtured the likes of Akhil Kumar, a gold medallist at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
The current crop of Bhiwani recruits to emerge from Jagdish Singh's care include the Beijing Games bronze medallist Vijender Singh and the Asian Games 2010 gold medal winner Vikas Krishan Yadav, both of whom will be fighting in London.
Vijender Singh, a heartthrob to his many Indian fans, is a native of Bhiwani, while Yadav hails from the nearby district of Hisar.
"The rags to riches stories spawn a thousand dreams. Boxing has become a means of acquiring health and wealth, fame and fortune," says Jagdish Singh, who runs his own boxing club and also teaches at the government-run training school.
Haryana state lends its support by awarding cash incentives and jobs in the police, army and railways for winners of international medals, and three per cent of public jobs in the state are also reserved for athletes.
Yadav, who will compete in the 69 kilogram weight category in London, believes that working under Jagdish Singh could give him the extra edge needed to win gold.
"The kind of training that we get here is extraordinary," Yadav, 20, says.
"Our boxers have made a name internationally and the sport will only grow bigger in India in the coming days. I am sure a lot of Olympians and medallists will come out of here."
Jagdish Singh's training methods may be unconventional but his students offer him complete loyalty, often touching his feet in the traditional Indian greeting to show reverence.
Bharti Poswal, a 14-year-old girl with a mop of jet black hair, smiles shyly when speaking but transforms into a ruthless fighter once inside one of the rickety boxing rings.
Wearing a padded helmet and gum guard, her sharp upper cuts soon leave her hapless sparring partner fighting for breath as she piled in blow after blow.
Bharti's determination to become a world-class boxer has seen her leave her family house in Bhiwani and opt for a nearby girls hostel which houses 12 other aspiring fighters.
"We follow a strict schedule and everyone keeps egging on the other. We are making so many sacrifices so that we can achieve success someday," she says.
For Bharti and other girls such as 16-year-old Mamta, who uses just one name, the hero that they all worship is MC Mary Kom, the five-time world boxing champion tipped as India's best bet to win gold at London.
"Mary has proved that with determination you can overcome any obstacle," Mamta says. "If she can do it, we also can."