How could I come back without a medal from Tokyo, says Punia

How could I come back without a medal from Tokyo, says Punia
© Provided by Hindustan Times HTLS 2021: How could I come back without a medal from Tokyo, says Bajrang Punia (HINDUSTAN TIMES)

For Bajrang Punia, the choice was stark: remove the protective tape and risk surgery or risk losing an Olympic medal. He did what he did because for Punia life is about what you do in those six minutes on the mat.

Having lost the semi-final, Punia opted to take the tape off in the Olympics bronze medal fight against Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov. “I thought if I have to go for surgery, so be it but I could not let this opportunity go,” he said.

“I have everything: gold at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and three medals at the world championships. I was preparing only to win gold (in Tokyo) but the injury happened. Doctors told me that if I remove the tape and fight, I might need surgery. People will say, ‘why take a chance, there is the 2024 Paris Olympics.’ But I was preparing for Tokyo, how could I come back without a medal?”

So, Punia fought without caring for the injury. “Who has seen 2024? For me the moment was in Tokyo. We work hard for three or four years only for the Olympics. I have beaten so many wrestlers to come this far and who knows how things will change in future.”

The Olympic bronze medallist was speaking at the HT Leadership Summit on Saturday. Punia shared the stage with Paralympics medallists Avani Lekhara and Sumit Antil. Their conversation with television journalist Shivani Gupta summed up the new age Indian athlete: one for whom participation is not the most important thing, winning is.

“Now, our athletes are not satisfied with just medals, they want to win gold medals, set world records. Barriers have been broken,” said Punia.

Lekhara is proof of that. Shooting gave her life a purpose after being bedridden for six months so Lekhara went to Tokyo wanting it all. “I wanted to achieve everything in Tokyo—gold medals, world record, Paralympic record. I was walking with my coach (Suma Shirur) before my match and she told me, ‘’just give your best and don’t take so much pressure of winning and smashing all records,’” said the 20-year-old shooter who has been in a wheel-chair after a road accident.

In Tokyo, Lekhara was on fire in the 10m air rifle standing SH1 event. She won gold with a Paralympic record of 249.6, a score which equalled the world record. Enough to make her happy, right? Well, almost. “The last shot was 9.9. I was disappointed despite a gold and a world record score,” she said.

Sitting beside her was Antil, a serial world record breaker in his Paralympic javelin event. In Tokyo, Antil toyed with the field, breaking his record five times on his way to gold with a throw of 68.55m.

“When I started javelin, the first thing I asked my coach was, “what was the world record.” He was surprised and told me to not think that far. Gradually, I realised how difficult it was to improve on your throw and it takes a lot of hard work, training, strength and technique,” he said. Having been a wrestler before his life altering accident—he was hit by a tractor and had to have a leg amputated—helped, said Antil. “I had strength. The only thing I needed was technique.”

With a prosthetic leg, Antil said he started working out at home and “stumbled upon a javelin one day.” Using prosthesis means Antil finds it difficult to generate power from the run-up. Also, the prosthetic leg has to be changed regularly. Getting the body to adjust to a new one takes time and is painful. “I am using one from March and I am still not quite used to it. There are chances of injury,” he said.

Punia, a former world No. 1 in the 65kg, said Indians can win multiple Olympic medals but only if they are allowed “to play freely without any pressure.”

He may not like living on the edge but when it comes to his bouts, it is full of tense moments and glorious comebacks.

“Pata nahin kya hota hai, jab tak opponent kuch points score na kar le, wrestling shuru nahin kar pata (Don’t know what happens. Till the point my opponents score, I can’t begin my wrestling,” said Punia.

“The coach says control the bout from start but that doesn’t happen. My game is of stamina and to fight for six minutes. Till the last second anything can happen in wrestling and I go by that policy.”

 

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