By Daniel Rocchi
M ost of us can recall a time when we or someone we know gave a bouncer or a security guard a hard time. It’s a thankless job, and often it can be a violent one. It’s all too easy to see why some security guards and bouncers look miserable as they count heads or pacify a rowdy patron, or why things might get heated when some bonehead makes the wrong move.
But if you’ve had a few too many during a fancy event at Woodbine Banquet Hall, there’s one security guard you’ll have an especially hard time getting a rise out of. It’s a good thing, too. Some of his friends call him “Gentle Giant,” but he’s one of the last people you’d ever want to mess with.
His name is Sunny Narwal. He studies medical physics at Ryerson, likes to play Assassin’s Creed and works a part-time security job at the banquet hall in Rexdale, the Toronto region he grew up in. He’s also one of the top young wrestlers in the province, if not the country.
Make no mistake—he’s no Dwayne Johnson or John Cena. There’s no rapping about his opponents before pulverizing them with a folding chair. Sure, Narwal grew up watching WWE wrestlers like Cena and Johnson become cultural icons, and he respects their craft. But the second-year member of Ryerson’s wrestling team would rather be compared to one of his own idols, like Kyle Snyder. Last year, at the Rio games, Snyder became the youngest American wrestler to ever win an Olympic gold medal, a few months before his 21st birthday. Having just turned 19 on Dec. 30, Narwal won’t be able secure an Olympic medal before he’s 21—the next summer games aren’t until 2020, in Tokyo. But he hopes to have a shot at top spot on the podium.
“I was so happy when I got this,” says Narwal, shortly after he arrives at The Eyeopener office for a photo shoot. He’s removed his regular clothes, revealing the national team wrestling singlet—the sport’s distinctive one-piece attire—he’s wearing underneath. Standing six foot one and weighing over 230 pounds, Narwal is an imposing figure. But there’s a childlike joy in his eyes as he gazes past his broad chest, down to the maple leaf and “CANADA” emblazoned across his stomach.
“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted one of these,” he says with a small smile.
Wrestling is in Narwal’s blood. His father was a wrestler in India, a country with a proud history in the sport. Sunny’s grandfather wrestled too, as did many of the Narwal men in the generations before him. When Sunny’s parents came to Canada about two decades ago, wrestling came with them.
Narwal doesn’t remember exactly when he started wrestling, but figures it was when he was five or six years old. While most kids his age were playing soccer or hockey, Narwal was on the mats with his little brother, Bobby, and his cousins, Jaivir and Tejvir Boal. It was a scene that wouldn’t change much over the years; today, all four are members of the Akhara of Champions wrestling club in Mississauga, Ont., and Narwal still counts his brother and cousins among his closest friends. The four spend most of their free time together. If they aren’t practicing on the mats at the club or training in the gym, they’re exploring the city or taking road trips together.
The foursome is taking one of those trips this weekend—an important one. On Jan. 27, Narwal will be rushing home from his last class of the week to get on the road to Sudbury, Ont., the site of this year’s Ontario Amateur Wrestling Association (OAWA) Junior Championships and the next step on Narwal’s journey towards Tokyo.
“The first time I lost, I used to cry. But my dad said, ‘Don’t cry; you learn more from losing than you do from winning’.”
Narwal is no stranger to winning. A former champion in provincial high school competition, he’s been competing in the OAWA provincials for the past several years, winning more medals than he can remember. This weekend, he’ll be defending his title following a gold medal finish last year. He’s been competing at the national amateur tournament since Grade 11, winning silver and bronze medals in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, two of the most common styles, when he was 17. His prowess on the mats was even enough to earn him a spot as an alternate on Canada’s under-20 junior team for competitions in Europe. Narwal was the youngest member of that team, finally earning the privilege to wear the maple leaf as he represented his country abroad.
Narwal is hoping a strong performance in Sudbury and a solid competition at nationals in March will help earn him a spot on this year’s national team and position him well for Olympic qualifiers. But he considers the time preceding his first selection to the U20 team to be the prime of his wrestling career—to date, anyways. Things are different this time around.
Earlier this month, Narwal competed with the Ryerson wrestling team at the Brock Open in St. Catharines, Ont. in his first competition in almost a year-and-a- half. While most of that missed time was due to the competition schedule and Narwal’s obligations outside of wrestling, he spent five months in the summer and fall recovering from a hyperextended left arm—his dominant wrestling arm.
Narwal won bronze at the Brock competition. While it’s been a short reintroduction period for him, the loss that left him competing for bronze instead of gold might prove to be more helpful than several extra months’ worth of competition and training would have been.
“The first time I lost, I used to cry,” he confesses. “But my dad said, ‘Don’t cry; you learn more from losing than you do from winning’.”
That philosophy, says Narwal, is just one manifestation of the mental fortitude that wrestling has taught him.
Thanks to the enormous popularity of WWE and characters like The Rock, a wrestling competition might prompt mental images of bright leotards and spectacularly choreographed staged combat performed for bloodthirsty crowds. According to Narwal, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“It’s like a physical chess match,” he says. “It’s not just a bunch of meatheads going to the gym and beating each other up.
“The successful wrestlers are always the smart wrestlers.”
Narwal defines his wrestling style as technically strong; he prefers to rely on his brain rather than his brawn to succeed in the heavyweight division, where competitors’ weights can range from 213 pounds (97 kilograms) to almost 290 pounds (130 kilograms). Tactics like training to make his left arm his dominant wrestling arm to confuse adversaries that typically wrestle right-handed competitors—despite being naturally right-handed himself—have helped Narwal succeed at every level of competition.
In addition to giving him a competitive edge, Narwal believes focusing on the mental aspect of wrestling has helped make him a stronger person, not just a stronger athlete.
“Anyone can be a champion if they put the work behind it, the work ethic. But if you don’t believe in yourself, you’re never going to be,” he says. “That’s what I’ve learned.”
It’s a good philosophy for someone looking to build a future in a competitive, challenging field like medical physics. As for working security, there’s plenty to be learned from a sport in which every fight, no matter how fiercely contested, ends in a handshake.
“People could be starting fights with you, screaming in your face and you have to keep a calm [demeanor], you need to keep that mentality. I think that’s the biggest thing wrestling has taught me: respect and patience.”