Bajrang Punia reflects on his journey to wrestling bronze at Tokyo Olympics

For the ace wrestler, who has not returned empty-handed from an event since 2018, the motivation of donning the India colours is the greatest. That’s what pushes him in his quest for gold.

Optimistic: Olympics bronze medal-winning wrestler Bajrang Punia addresses a gathering during a felicitation ceremony in New Delhi. “Every athlete wants to win an Olympic medal and I had the same dream. I was aiming for the gold, but I could not achieve it and had to settle for bronze. I feel sad about it and will try to achieve it in Paris,” he says.   -  AFP

Dronacharya award-winning coach Mahavir Prasad’s words turned out to be prophetic as wrestler Bajrang Punia defied a painful knee injury to win a bronze medal in the men’s freestyle 65kg weight category in Tokyo 2020.

Prior to Bajrang’s bout, Mahavir had shared an interesting anecdote to underline that the injury might be a good omen for the ace wrestler ahead of the Olympics.

“Once (1961 World championships bronze medallist) Udey Chand had told me that a minor injury ahead of a major event should be considered a good sign for a wrestler. Sushil Kumar suffered a cut on one of his elbows (in a freak accident) ahead of the 2008 Olympics. I shared what Udey Chand told me with Sushil to boost his morale. Sushil returned with a bronze medal. Again, before the Asian championships in Delhi in 2010, he accidentally injured his toe but went on to win his maiden continental title. So, Bajrang’s injury should be considered a good sign and he is likely to win a medal,” Mahavir had said.

It turned out to be true as the three-time World Championships medallist fought against the odds to land his maiden Olympics medal on debut and provided India with its second wrestling medal in Tokyo. Though Bajrang is unhappy with not achieving his dream of winning a gold medal in the Olympics, he would take heart from the fact that he is only the second Indian wrestler after Sushil Kumar to bag medals in both the Olympics and World Championships.

Bajrang may seek re-trials close to Worlds, reveals he carried two injuries into Olympics  

In the run-up to the Olympics, Bajrang had problems in finding quality sparring partners. But he was preoccupied with the thought of staying injury-free. He managed to find a good centre at Vladikavkaz in Russia where a lot of top-class wrestlers trained. Plans were on track, but he felt the need to have match practice and competed in the Ali Aliyev memorial tournament. His worst fears came true as he injured his right knee there with about a month to go for the Olympics.

Amid concerns, Bajrang assured all that everything was fine. It was far from the truth. He stayed away from the mat for about three weeks and trained for a few days before reaching Tokyo with some pain in his knee.

With a heavily wrapped knee, which affected his feet movement, he had to curb his natural attacking style of wrestling during the competition in the Olympics. Still, he got past two opponents before losing to World and Olympic medallist Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan in the semifinals. The following day he threw caution to the wind and got rid of the knee protection to give it his all in the bronze medal match and come out victorious against old rival Daulet Niyazbekov of Kazakhstan.

Bajrang Punia out of World Wrestling Championships  

“Of course, it was difficult for me to fight with an injury in my first Olympics. I tried to wrestle aggressively but the opponents were strong, and it was not possible. It was my strategy (to go all out) the following day. It was not possible in initial bouts because if I had aggravated my injury, I could not have wrestled further.

“That was the last bout and the medal bout, so I wanted to give everything. I thought it would not make much of a difference even if I aggravated my injury. I thought I had come here to win a medal and have to win it at any cost,” Bajrang told Sportstar about his different strategies and his keen desire to stand on the Olympics podium.

Citing his own example, Bajrang highlighted how an injury during a competition adversely affects an athlete’s performance. “The injury did a lot of damage to my chances (in the Olympics). I did whatever rehab I could do but could not get over it fully,” he said during a Tata Motors event.

He acknowledged the unflinching backing of his parents and his wrestler-wife Sangeeta during the toughest phase of his career. Sangeeta’s support was especially crucial.

Indian wrestlers at Tokyo Olympics: A bittersweet experience  

“Since she herself is a wrestler, she understands how one needs to get motivated before a big event. After picking up an injury, a wrestler gets disturbed, and a lot of negative thoughts cross the mind. She knew how to motivate me in such a scenario and supported me through this. We have not found enough time to spend with each other after our marriage.”

The support provided by the Indian embassy officials in Russia during Bajrang’s training stint at a small place was also crucial. “They provided me with whatever I wanted. Since there was little time, I could not organise everything. But they made everything available to me,” said Bajrang.

For Bajrang, who has not returned empty-handed from an event since 2018, the motivation of donning the India colours is the greatest. That’s what pushes him in his quest for gold.

“Every athlete wants to win an Olympic medal and I had the same dream. I was aiming for the gold, but I could not achieve it. I feel sad about it and will try to achieve it in Paris. I work hard and the love and blessings of all the countrymen is there. The love of the countrymen works for me in every tournament I take part in.”

Bronze medallist Bajrang: 'Staying away from mat due to knee injury affected my performance'  

To achieve his goal of becoming an Olympic champion, Bajrang acknowledges he has to put in more hard work for Paris 2024 by when he will be 30 years old. “Of course, I have to (work on my fitness a lot). I have to work for the next three years to fulfil my dream, which I could not achieve this time.”

That’s not the only gold medal that Bajrang aspires to win. The World Championship gold, which he missed after losing to Japanese Takuto Otoguro in the final in 2018, is another shining metal that attracts the champion wrestler. “That’s also there on my target,” said Bajrang.

For now, Bajrang is diligently going through his rehab routine despite the hectic schedule packed with innumerable felicitation functions. He is looking forward to getting back to training after a few weeks before resuming his quest for excellence, which will begin with his effort to retain his gold medals in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games next year.