When Satish Kumar was 19, he hadn’t even heard about boxing.
But a little over a decade later he became the first Indian boxer to qualify in the Olympics in the 91kg category.
Hailing from the city of Bulandshahr in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, all he ever wanted to do is serve his country.
He came from a family comprising his father, a farmer, and four brothers, including an elder brother in the army, whose footsteps Satish Kumar wanted to follow.
So, it was in 2008 that he joined the Indian Army, still a teenager, as a Sepoy and moved 300kms further north to the cantonment town of Ranikhet.
It was here his future was forged.
Posted at a border, the 6’2” Satish Kumar came within the sights of a coach, present there for a boxing camp, who urged him to try his hand at the sport.
“One of the coaches saw me and said, ‘ah, you are well built. Why don’t you give this a shot?’” he recalled in an interview with Scroll.in.
Picked for his size alone, he shrugged and decided to give it a shot.
A year into his career in the army, Satish Kumar had found his true calling.
Because another a couple of years later, he won his first medal in the sport in his maiden appearance at the Senior National Championships in Chennai, paving a new path for his life.
Already in his early 20s by the time he began his career in the ring, Satish Kumar entered the world of boxing at an age when most of his rivals and contemporaries were already well-established with years of experience to draw from.
Nevertheless, he established himself in the super heavyweight category in little time.
But his success in the ring against his countryman didn’t necessarily translate into immediate success internationally.
Whether it was the step-up in the calibre of opponents or bad luck, the recipe for success in international events took time to master as life began throwing curveballs at him in the ring.
The quarter-finals of the 2013 World Championships was one such occasion when a cut above his right eye from his pre-quarterfinal bout led to him being declared ‘medically unfit’ to fight the eventual silver medallist.
Exclusion from India’s 2014 Commonwealth Games boxing contingent was another bitter pill to swallow for Satish Kumar but successive bronze medals at the 2014 Asian Games and the 2015 Asian Boxing Championships showed what he was capable of.
His deepest cut though came just before Rio 2016 when a deep gash in his eyebrow prevented him from having a shot at representing India at the Olympics.
“It was the quarter-final bout against Ireland and I took the first round quite comfortably. But with just about 10 seconds remaining in the second round, I suffered a nasty cut on my eyebrows after which I was forced to abort the third round. It was very painful,” Satish Kumar would tell the Times of India.
It was another big hit that life had landed on Satish Kumar, but his refusal to let it be the knockout blow for his career coupled with his desire to keep moving forward is perhaps the reason behind him creating history four years later.
“Certain things in life happen for the better,” he declared.
Satish Kumar went back to the drawing board after his Rio 2016 setback and put in the hard yards to return to his stage more battle-tested - both physically and emotionally - than before.
If 2016 was the nadir of his boxing career owing to the Rio disappointment, his next three years encompassed emotions on the opposite end of the spectrum for the boxer from Bulandshahr.
He marked his return the following year with a gold at the Grand Prix Ustinad Labem in the Czech Republic before bagging silver medals in the inaugural Indian Open and the Commonwealth Games in 2018.
An Arjuna Award recipient in 2018, he hailed the two years as the best of his career.
His most memorable win though came recently, against Otgonbayer Daivii at the Asian boxing Olympic qualifiers in March.
“I can’t explain exactly how happy I feel,” the Indian super heavyweight told the Olympic Channel moments after he beat the Mongolian boxer.
“I want to perform even better in my future bouts. I’m happy and proud to become the first boxer ever from my country to qualify for the Olympics from the super heavyweight division,” he added.
Although it’s been a long and difficult road to the Olympic Games with plenty of bumps along the way, Satish Kumar’s perseverance and ability to keep going forward despite the challenges has paid off.
How he fares in sports’ showpiece event remains to be seen. But if his career is anything to go by, the 30-year-old can be expected to make a good fist of it.
Results aside, Satish Kumar can be safe in the knowledge that he’s already a history-maker as India’s first super heavyweight boxer at the Olympics.
History will remember him as one of India’s pioneering super heavyweights and who knows with a good run at Tokyo next year, perhaps even more.
But for Satish Kumar, the army man in him will, perhaps, always define him and it has shown no sign of waning over the passage of time judging by his recent comments amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Country comes first, I am ready to serve the people in any capacity if the need arises,” he asserted.