NEW DELHI: A knee injury just over a month before the Tokyo Olympics threatened to derail Bajrang Punia‘s campaign. At a tournament in Russia, Bajrang twisted his right knee. From that point till arriving in Japan, he went silent.
The sight of Bajrang Punia wrestling with a brace on his right knee in Tokyo worried fans. The opponents too knew the Indian was mentally on the back foot because of his injury. So Bajrang was worried too. In the semifinals, India’s hopes of a 65kg wrestling gold ended. Bajrang lost to Haji Aliyev of Azerbaijan.
He went into his shell for a while after the defeat, before coming to terms with the fact that he had to compete with the injury. The chance to win gold had gone. But bronze was still a possibility. On match-day, he told his physio, “Take the brace off, enough.” And he went on to beat Kazakhstan’s Daulet Niyazbekov to finish on the podium with a bronze in his Olympic debut.
3️⃣ dominant takedowns in an impressive display! 🔥@BajrangPunia was in absolute control and wins the men’s 65kg… https://t.co/1m87XNsqxB
— #Tokyo2020 for India (@Tokyo2020hi) 1628341618000
TimesofIndia.com was part of the media group invited to a virtual press conference with Bajrang, where he narrated his Tokyo journey.
Disappointment of missing gold…
I am disappointed that I couldn’t do what India expected of me. I was away from the mat for 20-25 days after injuring my knee a month and a half ago. I could feel the shortcomings (in my play) because of that. My leg was not moving the way it should have. But there are three years (before Paris 2024). I will definitely try for gold medal in Paris.
The injury in Russia…
The doctor (in Russia) advised me to rest, but I could not. He advised me to go back to India. I told him that training is more important, and that travelling was risky due to Covid. I told him whatever rehab is needed, tell me. I will follow that. My physio was there, treated me and it helped. Whatever they said, I did. I told them I just want to fix it. Whatever they told me to exercise, I did that 3-4 times a day. I stopped sleeping during the day, so that I could exercise as much as possible to fix it.
I would also like to thank the Indian Embassy in Russia. They helped a lot, provided everything. Our training base was a small place, with not many things were available. So the Embassy and SAI ensured everything was available for me there.
Do you regret playing the tournament in Russia?
I played to gauge my performance. I hadn’t played for a while (chose to skip the Poland ranking event before going to Russia). I was training in Russia and there was a tournament there. So I planned with the coach to participate. As far as injury, my sport is such that injuries can happen in training as well. It is a contact sport, we need to spar. So injury can happen anywhere. In fact, there is more of a chance of getting injured in training than in a tournament, because in a tournament we are focused but in training we try various things.
Photo courtesy: Bajrang Punia Twitter
After the defeat in semis…
I slept early after that because I didn’t want to talk about it to anybody. What had happened had happened. I had to focus on bringing my weight back the next morning (in case it overshot above 65kg overnight).
A brace is never comfortable…
There was pain in the knee, so the brace was given by the physio. I couldn’t take risks in the first few bouts in Tokyo. But in the last (bronze-medal) bout, I said I won’t wear it. Medal mattered the most. I will get time to fix my injury after the bout. So I went all out to win the medal and didn’t wear anything (brace). I don’t feel comfortable in it ever. The physio asked me to wear it for my benefit, so that my injury doesn’t worsen. He is an expert in that. But I requested him to not tape the knee for the bronze-medal match. If there is (more) injury, we will see later.
Every tournament teaches you. Olympic competition may not give you a chance to correct your mistakes, and it happens every four years, while tournaments like the World Championships keep happening. The Olympics is the biggest dream of every athlete, I was training for the same. Now I will work on my shortcomings. I learned that we can do nothing if we take pressure. To win, we have to play with a free mind.
Reactions back home…
All parents want their kids to win a medal. They said this bronze is worth gold because they knew about my injury. They were concerned and disappointed when the injury happened at such a crucial time. After I lost in the semis, I called home. My mother said, “I wasn’t focused on your wrestling, but on your knee, because I was so worried. Winning and losing is part of the game.” Now when I return home, the first thing I will have is the ‘choorma’ made by my mom.
The road ahead, decision on coach…
There is the World Championship in October and the Asian Games & Commonwealth Games next year, so I have to work on rehab for now. I haven’t thought of the future as far as my coaching is concerned. Right now we are talking about what we could have done better in Tokyo and improve on that.
Switching weight categories going ahead?
I will continue to play in the 65kg category, won’t switch to 74kg.
Tokyo 2020 silver medallist Ravi Dahiya, left, and bronze medallist Bajrang – Photo courtesy Bajrang Punia Twitter
Overall a disappointing wrestling campaign for India?
I was also thinking we will get 3-4 medals in wrestling. We couldn’t do that. Deepak (Punia) lost his medal in 10 seconds. That hurt us a lot. But I would urge all to not criticise those who couldn’t win a medal. Love them even more, in fact.
Would you like to dedicate this medal to anyone?
In Covid, many warriors have lost their lives and some are still fighting for us. So I would dedicate this medal to those Covid warriors.