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Grappling with success

After his monumental gold medal win at the 2018 Jakarta Asian Games, wrestler Bajrang Punia speaks exclusively to Patriot about his career, his win and future plans

August 19 was a momentous occasion, this year, for the Indian wrestling fraternity. At the Asian Games in Jakarta, India’s best male grappler currently, Bajrang Punia was about to come face to face with Japanese powerhouse Takatani Daichi in the men’s 65 kg finals. Experts expected the bout to be a closely contested one, as these were the two wrestling powerhouses of Asia. There was a lot of hype surrounding the eagerly anticipated final, as the end of the contest would open the medal tally of India — Punia was guaranteed a silver even if he lost the bout.

For Punia, the bout was of huge significance, as he was beaten by Daichi in their previous encounter in the Asian Wrestling Championships in Kyrgyzstan. For him this was a chance to avenge his previous loss to the same opponent.

The referee blew the whistle and the bout began, as India waited in bated breath for the outcome. But to everyone’s surprise, the bout was a one-sided encounter as Bajrang Punia was totally dominant on the Japanese army man. His swift footwork proved to be the game changer, as Daichi couldn’t grab his ankle once in the entire bout. The bout ended with a dominant 11-8 as Punia emerged victorious and opened India’s medal tally, not with a silver or a bronze, but with a gold.

On a chat with Patriot over the phone, Bajrang Punia talks about his life, career and his momentous win in Jakarta…

How did you develop the passion for wrestling?
I belong to a wrestling family of Kudan village in the Jhajjar district of Haryana. My father and elder brother were both wrestlers at the state level. So, you can say that wrestling was always in my blood. My father enrolled me to the local village akhara. I don’t know why I fell in love with the game, but since I was always an aggressive boy, I felt the game came naturally to me. Also, as I wrestled more and more, I started developing the passion for the game, and now, here I am.

What has been the role of your family behind your career?
I owe my success to my family. My father was a wrestler, but he was never very successful. He was so interested in my game, that he never missed a single bout, right from when I was a small child. Whenever I won, I saw the gleam of pride in his eyes, and I wanted to make my father proud. My mother took care of me and my diet at home, even though we were not that well off financially. Despite our poverty,, my father did not hesitate in shifting to Sonepat and enrolled me in the state’s best academy to harness my skills. If I hadn’t enrolled in Sonepat, I wouldn’t have become the wrestler I am today. My family has stood by me like a rock and I am forever indebted to them.

Who has been your biggest inspiration?
To be honest, I always focused on my own game. But I was and still am deeply inspired by Yogeshwar Dutt. We train together and I see the amount of hard work he puts in his training. He has also helped me immensely in my training, and also gave all the support I needed. Yogi Bhai, as I fondly call him, has been my friend, philosopher and guide, at every step of my career. Before the Games started, I promised him that I will win the gold medal this time, which I could not four years ago.

What were your thoughts before and during your bout against Takatani Daichi?
Honestly, I tried to remain calm and feel absolutely no pressure. If you get tensed before such a high-pressure bout, then your attention tends to get diverted. Also, I was defeated by the same opponent in the Asian Wrestling Championships, so I wanted to get my revenge for that bout. Plus, I had studied his moves well before getting into the arena with him. During the bout too, I knew that I was very swift, so I used my speed to exhaust his energy and finally got the win. I was confident that I will bring the gold back home.

How did you feel when you realise you had won the gold medal?
The feeling was surreal. It was a very proud moment for me as I had brought gold for my country. The feeling was extra special when I realised I had opened India’s medal tally at the 2018 Asian Games, that too with the ultimate prize — the gold medal. I would also like to say that I dedicate my victory to late Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Where do you rate this victory among your list of achievements?
This is the biggest achievement of my career. The Asian Games is second only to the Olympics in terms of prestige and importance. So, to win a gold at this stage is very special. I would rate this even above my 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games gold medals.

What has been the role of your coaches and support staff in this victory?
This victory wouldn’t have been possible without the collective effort of my support staff. The medal is a result of months of training, day in and day out. My coach Emzarios Bentinidis, my physios Sumya and Shubham and my nutritionist Tajinder are the main reasons behind this victory. My medal is because of the collective effort of everyone. I would also like to thank Sports Authority of India, Wrestling Federation of India and TOPs for their support.

So, what next for Bajrang Punia?
My immediate target is to prepare myself and get ready for the World Wrestling Championships 2018 in Budapest, Hungary, and win another gold for my country there. Obviously, I have one eye set for a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as that is my ultimate goal.