Venkat Rahul Ragala talks of his hometown with a few, quick disclaimers and a smidgen of embarrassment. Originally a reformatory settlement made by the British for the criminalised Yerukula community, Stuartpuram in Guntur district, Andhra Pradesh, is where Rahul was born, where he first began picking up weights as an eight-year-old and where his family continues to live. "Now it's no more about notorious people...Most of them are educated now and work in the police force and in the civil services."
On Saturday, Ragala added another respectable distinction to it: A Commonwealth Games gold medal. "I've worked very hard to win this. I've been struggling with a knee injury for three months now because of which I couldn't do my best lifts today."
Ragala's entry total for the competition was 330 kg, the second-highest in the 85 kg weight-class field after the 340 kg of Samoa's Don Opeloge, who finished with a silver medal. Both the names and medals were the same at last year's Commonwealth Championships. "My recovery is not yet complete. I could have lifted so much better. Honestly, I'm not happy with my performance," Rahul says with a weak smile. It's easy to see why he feels that way. As against the 338 kg (151kg snatch and 187 kg clean & jerk) that was enough to fetch him a gold on Saturday, Ragala had lifted 351 kg (156 kg snatch, 195 kg clean & jerk) at the 2017 Commonwealth Championships in Gold Coast.
To follow up on his first 147 kg successful snatch attempt, Rahul returned with a four-kilogram increment plan. Tucking his toes under the barbell, he clasped the metal with a wide, overhand grip and winced. "My knee wasn't holding up well. There was just a lot of pain and fear of more injuries," he explained later, the light orange crepe bandage peeling off his leg. He was to walk off the platform shaking his head in disappointment, with national coach Vijay Sharma wrapping a consoling arm around him.
For the clean and jerk attempts, Rahul wore the black thread that usually stays around his neck, on his forehead. Running through it was a silver toe ring. "My mother passed away two years ago. This is her toe-ring which I wanted to keep close to me. It's what I always wear at both training and competitions," he says with a choked voice and glassy eyes, sounding nothing like a metal-kneading, bench-pressing guy. He clears his throat to keep his emotions under check and says he has his parents' names tattooed to his chest. The buttoned-up red tee offers little evidence, but we happily buy his word. "My father couldn't fulfill his dream of becoming a lifter, which is why I first took it up. He started training me early and has always been very supportive about everything I do."
Three years after Rahul was introduced to lifting weights at the age of 11, he began beating his father Venkat Madhu Ragala during training sessions. His brother R Varun is also part of the national camp. "Two years ago when I suffered from jaundice and lost 20 kg, it was my father who worked on my diet and supplements to make sure I returned to my current weight."
Rahul's father, who grows rice on leased out patches of land, faltered in his dream of becoming a lifter, but was determined to get his son to pick up from where he left off. Rahul joined the national camp when he was just 14 and became the only Indian so far to win a medal at the Youth Olympics in the 77 kg weight category, in 2014. He also won gold at the Asian Junior Championships soon after. His mother's health condition tore him away from preparations for the Rio Olympics. "We didn't have enough money at home for me to maintain a good diet and my mother's illness also held me back."
"My father couldn't fulfill his dream of becoming a lifter, which is why I first took it up. He started training me early and has always been very supportive about everything I do." Ragala
He was battling all these demons when his final lift ended unsuccessfully, which meant that he'd left the door open for Samoan Opeloge to sneak away with a gold. "Coach told me in the warm-up hall that if I attempted 191 kg successfully in my final lift after 187 kg, then gold would be mine to take home. But I couldn't execute it well. At the Asian Games, I swear I will go for 370 kg. That is the focus now."
One could say that Stuartpuram, made (in)famous by a 90s Telugu movie by the same name starring superstar Chiranjeevi, now has its own son who can lift the ill-repute off its chest.
"Woh naam toh badal ke rakh denge (We'll make sure to change the bad name it carries now)."