It’s almost been a month since Bajrang Punia returned home after the 2019 World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan. Heading into the competition as the favourite to win the title in the 65kg freestyle category, the Indian grappler had to be content with a bronze after his close loss to local favourite Daulet Niyazbekov in the semi-final.
For Punia, the loss is still a hard one to digest. “Kya batayein aapko? Yeh lagaatar teesri baar ho raha hai mere saath” (“What should I say? This is the third time that it’s happened to me.”), said the 25-year-old in a freewheeling chat with the Olympic Channel, his voice conveying the hidden disappointment.
Having made it to the last-four without much trouble, Punia was made to rue his luck as one missed calculation cost him the tie against Niyazbekov with the Kazakh being handed the tie on criteria after the two were locked in a 9-9 tie after two rounds of wrestling.
“There were instances where I was fouled as well, and it affected my game. We spoke to the (United World Wrestling) Federation too about the problems this year. They said that they will investigate the matter and make sure it doesn’t repeat in the future,” he said.
But the Indian knows he doesn’t have much time to dwell on the past. With a place at the 2020 Olympic Games guaranteed, Punia needs to start looking at the future if he has to be on the podium in Tokyo next year. “What’s done is done. Now we are preparing ourselves to be tougher and be ready for any challenge in the future,” he continued.
Being able to look at the bigger picture has helped Punia reach the heights in his chosen discipline in a short span.
The breakthrough year
Ever since breaking into the scene with a bronze medal in the 60kg freestyle at the 2013 Asian Championships, Punia - who hails from a small wrestling village, Chhara in the Jhajjar district of Haryana - has climbed the ladder of success at a pace.
But it wasn’t until 2018 that Punia became one of the leading lights of Indian wrestling on the world stage.
With gold medals in the 65kg category at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, 2018 Asian Games and the 2019 Asian Championships, Punia has truly established himself as the primary contender for a medal at every competition he turns up at.
So, what’s changed for the young grappler in the past few years?
“I believe it’s mainly because I have had an equally hard-working coaching staff that has backed me up,” he explained quashing talks of him parting ways with his personal coach Shako Bentinidis.
“The federation has been equally supportive too. They have let me prepare the way I want ahead of every championship in the past two years. Moreover, they have let me choose the competitions I want to wrestle in. We have been training since we were kids, but the knowledge we gain in these tournaments is far greater than what we learn during training.”
“Training away from the country too has helped me because of the exposure I have received. Be it the different techniques or equipment I have used. It’s helped me raise my game to a greater level.”
But the Indian knows that the despite all the success so far, the job is still half done. If he has to emulate his mentor Yogeshwar Dutt, a medal at the Olympics is paramount. And Punia is determined to put his best foot forward towards realising that dream. “That’s the ultimate goal,” Punia added.
“Four of us have qualified for the Tokyo Games so far. And the target is to win at least four medals at Tokyo 2020. I know it might seem like a big claim but if you look closely at the way we have gone about our job at the World Championships, I don’t think it’s impossible. We are surely working towards it,” he assured.