Exclusive Q&A: Olympic champion Taha Akgul not taking holidays in bid to retain gold at Tokyo Games
The 125kg grappler from Turkey won his nation's only gold medal at Rio 2016, and returned to a heroes welcome.
But while many athletes lose the desire to keep competing at the top after such an achievement, Akgul's fire to win has never burned brighter.
He added two world silver medals in 2017 and 2019 to go with his nine European Championships titles and two world titles, but his progression suddenly came crashing to a halt due to torn ligaments in his left shoulder from a national training camp.
The six-month rehabilitation process and the coronavirus pandemic mean that it will be exactly a year since his last competitive match when he takes to the mat at the 2020 World Championships in Belgrade, Serbia this December.
Olympic Channel caught up with Akgul via video link to chat about his desire to become a 'legend' by retaining his Olympic title at Tokyo 2020, as well as finding out the secrets to his success.
Olympic Channel (OC): First of all, what is the injury status with your shoulder?
Taha Akgul (TA): I had an operation at the end of December last year. It took six months to complete my treatment process, but now I'm ready to start full training with my team. In fact, I have already started practising, but soon I will be back at full speed.
OC: And how does it feel to be back wrestling after so long away? It must have hurt your body a bit.
TA: Of course. I was hesitant about participating in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics before the postponement. I was worried because I thought that I would miss the opportunity to attend another Games. As the reigning Olympic champion, my aim was to defend my title in Japan.
The injury has also been psychologically challenging. I still feel pain during practices, because I know the ligaments are still not fully back to normal yet. When United World Wrestling announced the world championships would happen in December, I feared the potential pain, so my main concern is to restore my fitness back to the normal level. I will do my best to compete at the (Tokyo) 2020 Olympics (in 2021) in the best shape possible. I believe I will be the favourite to win again, and I hope to take another gold medal home to my country.
OC: How did you cope, mentally, being out injured for so long?
TA: In truth, I never fully stopped training. My apartment is located on a high floor in my building and there are many stairs to reach my house. So even after a major surgery and my shoulder in a sling, I took all the stairs up and down every day to make sure my legs kept moving, and to make sure I still had goals to achieve. But being in a sling for two months is a really challenging and long process. It's has worn me down psychologically, because I felt that the country was expecting a gold medal from me before the Olympics were postponed. I also set the same objective for myself - to become a champion for the second time.
The coronavirus pandemic was actually a kind of good fortune for me because it coincides with my injury. If next year the Olympic Games are actually held, and I get the gold medal then it's a really good story to tell given everything that has happened with my shoulder. I have been a champion for many times in my career, seven times at the European Championships, twice at the World Championships, and also an Olympic champion. However I thought that if I do miss the Olympics, it is because of God's will. All the successes that I have had so far happened because of him. So if I am injured, psychologically I won't let it wear me out.
OC: I want to talk about a bit about your upbringing. How important is wrestling in your hometown Sivas, which has produced several Olympic champions?
TA: I started wrestling at the age of 12. My father used to be a wrestler and he encouraged my elder brother to engage in the sport, before encouraging me to do the same. And whenever we had relatives or visitors to our house, we would push the sofas away and create some space to wrestle in the middle of the room. Physically, I was very eligible for the sport. I'm much bigger than my father, my mother, and my brother.
Sivas is the homeland for the highest number of European, World, and Olympic champions. For example, Hamza Yerlikaya has been a European champion eight times, World champion three times, and Olympic champion twice. Then there is Ahmet Ayik from the older generation who was also Europe, World, and Olympic champion. So you can see we have athletes from Sivas representing all generations.
OC: What is the secret to your domination of wrestling over such a long period of time?
TA:I believe that there are three important factors that are key to success in sport: Regular and well organised training, good nutrition, and enough rest. If one of these factors is missing, you will not be successful. Personally, I haven't been on holiday or any vacation for the past 10 years. My life is disciplined and I am also detached from my beloved friends and family. All I can say is that this is about dedication. This is about self sacrificing. Commitment brings long-term success. Ten out of twelve months of the year we spend in training camps, and that will continue to be the case until the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
I believe that wrestling is one of the most difficult and challenging individual sports. That's why we need better nutrition compared to normal people.
"In Turkey there is a popular joke: They say one wrestler can sit and eat a whole lamb in full. This is just a joke, but there is some kind of truth in it because our nutrition is mostly based on protein." - Taha Akgul to Olympic Channel
OC: Given you're training for so much of the year and you don't take holidays, how do you avoid burning out?
TA: In truth, I really have started feeling the effects of this lifestyle recently because I have been feeling a little worn out. So in recent years, I have started letting myself take some breaks. It's strange because one day you can become the world champion, and the next day you are back on the mat in order to do some more practise. It is truly strange and psychologically straining, because my rivals are always trying to catch me. It requires a lot of dedication on my side to stay on top, but it was wearing me out psychologically. Frankly speaking, holidays are a necessity for a normal human being and we should recognise this fact. So in recent years, I have spent more time on myself and I am feeling better. I am a top athlete, and if I believe that I will not get the top place at the Olympics, then I will say, 'Okay, let's stop here.'
OC: How did it feel to win Turkey's only gold medal at Rio 2016 and what was the reception like back home?
TA: Before I got on the mat, Turkey had not had any titles. If we had to come back to Turkey without any gold medals, that would be bad for the country. But everyone thought, 'OK, Taha is still remaining and he will get the gold.' That was the expectation in everyone's hearts and minds, which created so much pressure on me. In the morning session, I had three matches which ended at midday. In the evening session, the final matches started at seven o'clock. So during the break from 12 o'clock to seven o'clock, I didn't go back to the Olympic Village to have some rest and do other things, but I stayed alone in the dressing room that was allocated for Turkey. I spent all that time alone without speaking to anyone and I didn't eat lunch. I just had a banana because it was the only thing my stomach would allow me to swallow because of my nerves. But when I won the gold medal, I was the happiest person on the earth at that moment.
You may remember at the Rio Olympics my parents were there and celebrated on the mat with me after I won the the medal. And then after the match was over, I went to the Olympic Village. But rather than going and having my shower, I just sat in a chair in the lunch hall. And then I started getting the congratulation messages on my phone. I was returning calls that I missed from the people who want to congratulate me. And of course, the first person who called me to congratulate was the president of Turkey, who said this was an important thing for the country.
You see its importance when people back home are waiting for you at the airport and in your hometown, and at your club to congratulate you, and that is the biggest pride that you feel. That is why I say that Olympics have a special and unique atmosphere. You have to be in a very strong mindset to cope with the whole world watching you on TV. The Olympics gives athletes a different kind of reputation and prestige, and you will be recognised anywhere in the world. For example if I go to Russia, Siberia, Uzbekistan, the United States, or anywhere in Turkey, I will receive the same acknowledgement from the people around me.
OC: In what way would winning gold at Tokyo be a bigger achievement than winning gold at Rio?
TA: I will become a legend in terms of freestyle wrestling. I don't know about the old times, but when I check the modern records, I see the there are no wrestlers who have won the Olympics twice from Turkey. Of course, I was European champion seven times and was an important milestone. But winning a second Olympic Games will be another record for me. However, I also know that if I take good care of myself and I really work hard, I can also get to the gold medal for the third time at the Paris 2024 Games. Why not? I am chasing some historical records for myself and I can say that I don't have much to lose, but I have many things to win in future.
OC: How have you changed as an athlete becoming the Olympic champion?
TA: If I have to make a comparison in my ability, there has not been a significant increase or decrease in my performance. I have lost some conditioning and speed compared to the old times, and this is my self-criticism. My rivals are used to my secrets. I have more competitors now and they have figured out my methods. In the past I used to win by a clear margin, but now my competitors that coming close. Between Rio and Tokyo I have won championships, but my performance is not the same as I had at the age of 21, 22, 23. But I will show everyone the best version of Taha at Tokyo 2020. Speaking about lifestyle, I can say nothing has changed in my life after Rio. I always like a humble, modest lifestyle, and that is still the case. And that is the secret. I can say I still live in the same apartment. I still drive the same car. And I still wear the same clothes. I still chat with the same friends. So that part did not change and I think that's the most important thing.
OC: Does that mean you have become a more intelligent wrestler?
TA: For sure. But we also have to look at the the nature of human beings. When you are satisfied with your success, then you start to become scared of the pain you may feel during training sessions, and when you are still hungry for success you push very hard until you feel the pain. So again, some self-criticism, I can say that I need to push harder during practice. That is one face, but I'm more experienced now as an athlete and I will reflect all that wisdom and experience on the mat. To compensate for the loss of speed and condition I have experience, I have my techniques and I have my intelligence.
OC: Geno Petriashvili won bronze at Rio 2016 but beat you in the final of the 2017 and 2019 world championships. How much does that rivalry motivate you?
TA: I think he is my closest rival. His physique and also his style are similar to mine. We have had many bouts and when it was a European match, I always win. But when it is world match, he would always be the winner. At the 2019 World Championships we were level at six all. During the last five seconds, I gave him the score to get equal, and since he scored the last points, he was the winner. It's like we are rivals from birth as we have been wrestling against each other for a long time. At the Olympics in 2021, he will be my closest rival again. I recognise that he's technically good, he's fast and swift, and I look forward to our future matches.
OC: How did your 2018 training camp with 97kg Olympic champion Kyle Snyder in the USA come about and what was that experience like?
TA: He invited me and my trainer to Ohio University to have a training camp. He's an Olympic champion and super successful athlete, so we had a great time. I have actually received two invitations from him so far. He's a very humble and modest person, and a good friend. He gave us a very warm welcome and if he's ever in Istanbul, I will also to show him a good welcome. I hope he will be Olympic champion at the lower weight and I will be champion at the higher weight again. He's a great guy.
OC: What did you learn from him?
TA: He has a very sound psychology, a very sound mind state. Which I liked very much. If I ever lose a match, I find it very distressing for a period of one to two months. But he enjoys every tournament and he wrestles at every opportunity. In Turkey, if we lose we ask, 'What will happen now?' We keep asking this question. What will the community, my trainer, my coach say about me? But over there I see they are relaxed and Snyder is free in this regard. He is free of the fear of winning and losing. They are more professional about this and they enjoy competitions more. They enjoy. They rest. And they improve. In recent years I've not joined some tournaments because of this fear of winning and losing . But If you wrestle, you can improve yourself. So it's important to have that relaxed feeling, that free spirit. That is the part that I like most about Snyder and the best thing I took away from our camp.
OC: As you ease your way back to full fitness, what are your goals for the 2020 world championships in Belgrade this December?
TA: When I get on the mat in Serbia, it will be exactly one year since my injury. I see this as a rehearsal for Tokyo 2020. Since my injury and the pandemic, I've been avoiding tournaments, which makes things tricky. However, I compete in the best condition I possibly can, and I will give my best effort to win. I will be there competing for the gold medal because I am an Olympic champion. But if things do not go well, I will not feel too bad because I see this as the half way point in my preparations for the Olympic Games, and I see this as a chance to discover my deficiencies.
OC: Finally, tell me a bit about the popular Turkish pastime of oil wrestling. Is it something you will do at the end of your career?
TA: Well, it really is popular in Turkey. There are many people who are fans of that style of wrestling. My physique is also a very appropriate for that style. I have received many calls from people who have tried to urge me to try oil wrestling. Many people have contacted me about it through Instagram messages and social media. It has a totally totally different atmosphere because there are local musicians playing music, using local drums and tulum pipes blowing. The athletes also wear leather shorts. And so it's an old tradition that goes back six hundred and sixty years. I don't intend to join that just yet, but I believe that I can be successful in it. If I get the golden belt - which is the award they get after winning the Kirkpinar tournament - to go with my European, World and Olympic titles, my name will be written in the pages of history!