Varun Dave, 19, has gone from a spindly child no one wanted on their sports team, to a powerlifting champion — and Strongest Man of Gujarat (2019). Along the way he’s discovered that even when it comes to the body, it’s all in the mind, he says.
All his life, Dave was a thin boy of below-average height (even today, at 5’ 6”, he weighs 55 kg). He wasn’t very strong; wasn’t an exceptional batter or bowler. So on playgrounds across his neighbourhood in Ahmedabad, he was rarely picked for a spot on the teams playing cricket, football and basketball.
This hurt, he says. It made him think he wasn’t good enough.
When puberty kicked in and did little to help, he decided to try to help himself. At 15, he joined a local gym and pumped iron for hours, week after week. Two trainers, Pankaj Trivedi and Indar Gurjar, began to take a special interest in his mission, and suggested he take up powerlifting (a strength sport that consists of three attempts at maximal weight on three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift). A young man training under Gurjar, Mohammed Irfan Ansari, 27, offered to help too.
“I was not confident about taking up this sport as I weighed only 45 kg at the time,” Dave says. “Years of criticism had also made me doubt my capabilities.” But as he trained with the coaches, Dave says he realised that strength doesn’t necessarily look a certain way. In one three-week period, for instance, he went from lifting 150 kg to 185 in deadlifts. He still weighed 51 kg. But he had built up muscle mass; improved his fitness levels.
Dave won his first gold, at the Ahmedabad District Powerlifting Championship, in 2017. This gave him a vital boost of confidence. Then Ansari dangled in front of him something that changed how the young man saw himself: the title of Strongest Man of Gujarat. This is a title awarded annually by the Gujarat State Powerlifting Association, to the contender who can lift the most weight relative to his body weight. There is only one title awarded each year. Ansari had just won it for 2017, and he assured Dave that he could win it too.
Even more motivated than before, Dave trained better, worked harder, and won 10 medals across 2017-18. Then came a string of losses. Dave made the cut for four tournaments but didn’t win a single medal. Competitors suggested that maybe this wasn’t the sport for him, given his size; that his previous wins had been flukes he was unlikely to replicate.
What was interesting, Dave says, was that this time around, feeling cut out didn’t hurt as it had before. “Where earlier this kind of talk would have crushed me and made me feel stupid for aiming so high, this time I picked myself up and began to train better. In fact,” Dave adds, “the losses and the criticism helped me see that I no longer needed validation from others”. Once again, there was the feeling that he had a long way to go. But this time he had more than hope; he knew he could do it. “And I had nothing to lose.”
Dave focused all his energy on improving his technique. He spent hours watching videos of his winning and losing performances, and videos of others who had won at the same tournaments. “I worked on my lower back and calves, to make them stronger.”
By April 2019, Dave was medalling at state-level contests again. In October that year, he outdid 300 other powerlifters to claim the Strongest Man of Gujarat title. He was still only 17. “It’s one of my most memorable moments, which I will never forget,” he says.
Wins have kept coming since. Dave is now also studying to be a civil engineer.
Meanwhile, he says, there’s a message he’d like to pass on to other spindly kids: “You are stronger than you believe you are.”