The double Olympics medalist asked Deepak Punia to prioritise wrestling over all else when the youngster was lured by a job offer.
Sport often sees the baton being passed from a veteran to an exciting youngster, who storms into the scene and charms everyone. A lot of times, the veteran is not ready to give up the mantle of stardom but when said veteran is Sushil Kumar, the case is different, as Deepak Punia discovered.
In the latter’s case though, Sushil Kumar, whom he calls ‘Guruji’ (teacher), recognized his talent before many others could spot Punia was a star in the making.
Deepak Punia came from a family of limited means and when he was offered the post of a sepoy in the Indian Army in 2016, he wanted to grab the opportunity that brought him a steady income. However, Sushil Kumar was having none of it.
His ‘Guruji’ asked him to focus on wrestling and that jobs would ‘chase him later’. And when a wrestler of that stature, with two Olympic medals and a world title to boot, tells you that, you know it is good advice.
Deepak Punia did exactly that and became the World Cadet champion the same year, with the help of some sponsorship arranged by Sushil Kumar.
The Indian wrestler kept working hard and the year gone by was when he made a name for himself. Deepak Punia became the first Indian in 18 years to win gold in the Junior World Wrestling Championship in August 2019, beating Russian Alik Shebzukhov.
The title was made sweeter by the fact that Deepak Punia had battled through a shoulder injury he suffered in the semi-final.
A month later, he took a step closer to his dream as he qualified for Tokyo 2020 with a semi-final appearance in the 86kg men’s freestyle at the Senior World Wrestling Championships, winning his bout against Colombian Carlos Izquierdo. He beat Stefan Reichmuth in the penultimate round but a leg injury forced him to sit out the final.
It would have been a poetic end to the tournament had the bout taken place because it was against Olympic and world champion, Hassan Yazdani.
“I would have learned something. He is also an Olympic champion, so it would have been a good experience to compete. But then, there was the risk of aggravating my injury,” he told Hindustan Times recently, highlighting the appetite to constantly keep learning.
To cap it all off, he was also named the ‘Junior Wrestler of the year’ by United World Wrestling.
According to his former coach Vladimir Mestvirishvili, the Indian wrestler’s constant need to achieve perfection is what drives him.
“You need four things - brain, power, luck and flexibility on the mat. Deepak has it all. He is a disciplined wrestler - he would constantly grapple with a new technique for days until he gets it,” the coach told the Times of India.
His love for milk also helps him in building that physique, so much so that the 20-year-old’s father, Subash Punia travelled 60km every day to his training centre to deliver milk and fruits to the Indian wrestler.
After that injury in the semi-finals of the World Championships, Deepak Punia only returned to action this year at the Matteo Pellicone Memorial last month in Rome, where he was knocked out in the first round.
However, he is determined to continue the dream run with a medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Deepak Punia will take the mat at the Asian Wrestling Championships and hope to build enough momentum to carry him through to winning the one medal everyone craves for.