Bajrang Punia: Fit and focused on Tokyo Olympics

Bajrang Punia, India’s only multiple World Championships medallist in wrestling, says he cannot afford to make a mistake on a platform like the Olympics. He’s leaving nothing to chance.

“You have to train well to win a medal. God can’t help you if you sit at home. One needs to work hard,” says Bajrang Punia.   -  Special Arrangement

Bajrang Punia, India’s only multiple World Championships medallist in wrestling, knows he belongs to the elite level and will be a medal contender at the Tokyo Olympics. But he is also aware of the stiff competition he is likely to face in the men’s 65kg freestyle weight category — the “most competitive category in the world,” in his own words.

“There are at least 12-13 wrestlers who can beat anyone. In other categories, you will find three-four medal contenders. In 65kg, 12-13 are medal contenders, and who performs well and has better luck will get a medal,” says the 27-year-old.

Overcoming roadblocks posed by the pandemic, the 27-year-old, backed by JSW, acknowledges the criticality of time and public expectations as far as winning a medal is concerned.

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Looking forward to making his Olympic debut, Punia found time to speak to Sportstar about his preparation, mindset and overall approach to the most important event of his career.

The Olympics for an athlete is like board exams for a student. How are your mindset and approach as you are preparing for the Tokyo Games?

My mindset is alright. It (the Olympics) is very close. Like the kids who prepare for a major exam, we have to be ready, keep ourselves fit and safe from Covid.

It is a challenge. The problem with our sport is you get a lot of injuries. So, one needs to keep that in mind as well and take care not to pick up an injury.

While training on the mat, one has to take care of these things.

Bajrang Punia with his family at his home in Sonipat. “I left social media to focus on my training for the Olympics. But the way this new strain of Covid spread, I thought I needed to make people aware,” says the champion wrestler.   -  Getty Images

 

This is your first Olympics. Are you nervous?

Before every match, everyone gets nervous. I am also a bit nervous. But when I look at the expectations of my countrymen, then I get a lot of positive energy. I think my countrymen have high hopes for me and I need to work hard and win a medal for the country. So, when I get on to the mat, the nervousness goes away. The focus remains on giving 100 percent and translating the training into performance.

You are the only Indian wrestler to have secured three World Championships medals. Does this give you any extra confidence?

It feels good to be the only athlete to have won three medals for the country. Whether I go to the Asian Games, Asian Championships, Commonwealth Games or World Championships, I just keep one thing in mind — I have to win a medal for the country. I don’t go to a tournament thinking that it is such a big event and I may not land a medal. My job is to give my best. Whatever I do in training, give 100 percent on the mat. If I keep my past accomplishments in mind, then I may not do well. Whatever tournament I play, I just keep my focus on it and perform well.

Yogeshwar Dutt has been your mentor. Have you sought any guidance from him in the run-up to the Olympics?

Yogeshwar bhai is busy with his politics and I am training with my coach (Shako Bentinidis). He left wrestling in 2016 and I have not been in touch so much with him since then. I am training with my personal coach and the India coaches. I am working on my weaknesses and strong points with the help of these coaches. After 2016, I have not contacted Yogi bhai for any advice.

You have been working on your leg defence for some time. Have you noticed any improvement?

Of late, in the tournaments I have taken part in, I have seen some improvement in my leg defence. At the Asian Championships, I did not let the opponents touch my feet. I did not give any points from my legs. I have been successful with the work I have been doing and I will keep working on these things in future because on a platform like the Olympics I cannot afford to make a mistake which will make me regret later. The Olympics happens once every four years and I should not wait for four years. I must train and look after every aspect of my game and leave nothing to chance.

Bajrang Punia

Age: 27

Weight category for Olympics: 65kg

Major achievements:

World championships: 2013 bronze (60kg), 2018 silver (65kg), 2019 bronze (65kg)

Asian Games: 2014 silver (61kg), 2018 gold (65kg)

Commonwealth Games: 2014 silver (61kg); 2018 gold (65kg)

Asian Championships: 2013 bronze (60kg), 2014 silver (61kg), 2017 gold (65kg), 2018 bronze (65kg), 2019 gold (65kg), 2020 silver (65kg), 2021 silver (65kg)

World Under-23 Championships: 2017 silver (65kg)

Major competitors in Tokyo: World champion Gadzhimurad Rashidov (Russia), two-time worlds medallist Daulet Niyazbekov (Kazakhstan), worlds bronze medallist Ismail Musukaev (Hungary), former world champion Takuto Otoguro (Japan), double worlds bronze medallist Alejandro Valdes (Cuba), individual World Cup winner Vazgen Tevanyan (Armenia), Olympic medallist and three-time world champion Haji Aliyev (Azerbaijan), two-time worlds medallist Magomedmurad Gadzhiev (Poland)

You have lost to Japan’s Takuto Otoguro twice and once you gave him a walkover because of injury. Will that play on your mind during the Olympics?

It will be there in the mind, but not that I have lost to him. I will keep this in mind that he is a quality wrestler and how I can give my best against him. If I keep thinking that I have lost to him in the past and he is better than me, then I can never win against him. I want to give my best no matter whosoever is in front of me. I have every opponent, all the 16 who will participate, in my mind. I have to keep in mind the strength and weakness of every opponent, whether someone is aggressive or defensive or counters well. Every wrestler is different and I watch bouts of every opponent and devise plans to beat each one of them.

As you mentioned, you need to be prepared to take on all the world-class wrestlers in your weight class. How difficult is it to devise a plan for every one?

The 65kg weight category is the most competitive category in the world. There are at least 12-13 wrestlers who can beat anyone. In other categories, you will find three-four medal contenders. In 65kg, 12-13 are medal contenders, and who performs well and has better luck will get a medal.

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Are you religious? Do you pray to god to help you in the Olympics?

I believe in god, but I know god helps those who work hard. Everyone prays to god to be successful. But you have to work hard. I just wish I don’t pick up an injury and have the blessings of the almighty all the time. You have to train well to win a medal. God can’t help you if you sit at home. One needs to work hard.

What about your vaccination? How careful are you about Covid?

I have taken two doses. It will help me fight Covid. But the danger is still there. We have to keep ourselves safe. We have to continue wearing a mask and washing hands.

This time, the Olympics is likely to be staged in almost empty stadiums. How does it feel?

First time such a big event will happen almost without audience. In smaller events, you see less public. But in big events, people come. We will miss the Indian supporters. But people will watch on TV and will support our athletes to bring medals to the country. We have to understand the situation. It is the same for everybody.

"Before every match, everyone gets nervous. I am also a bit nervous. But when I look at the expectations of my countrymen, then I get a lot of positive energy" says the wrestler.   -  Special Arrangement

 

You had quit social media for some time. Why did you make a comeback?

I left social media to focus on my training for the Olympics. But the way this new strain of Covid spread, I thought I needed to make people aware. In our country, people don’t listen to the political leaders as much they listen to a sportsperson. They think sportspersons don’t speak for any political party. I thought if I could do something and tell people about this, if 10 people listen to my advice and follow it, I will be very happy that I can make some difference.

How do you see Indian wrestlers’ chances in the Olympics this time?

All of the wrestlers who have qualified for the Olympics are good. I feel we can win three to four medals in wrestling. Our president (Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh of the Wrestling Federation of India) has said we should win four medals.

Overall, this should be our best performance. At the 2018 Asian Games, India did very well. We won medals in several disciplines against all expectations. Our sportspersons have been doing well and I hope we will do well this time in the Olympics.

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