Eighty one seconds. That's how fleeting Garima Chaudhary's big moment in the spotlight was. Under uncomfortably bright arc lights, in an unnaturally large arena, against the reigning World No 1, with the roar of the crowd against her at the biggest stage of all. In the blink of an eye. Gone. Poof.
Having gone to the London Olympics as India's only female judoka to make the cut, the then 22-year-old Chaudhary's competition ended rather abruptly at the hands of Yoshie Ueno, a Japanese competitor with two World Championship golds and a silver to her name. Ueno, hailing from the country where judo was born, went on to win bronze at London 2012 while Chaudhary found herself on the plane back to India. Heartbroken. Scarred. The shadows of doubt clouding her face. She had been a judoka since she was 14. Had dreamed of Olympic glory for almost as long.
Only to see it vanish in 81 seconds.
Jiwan Sharma, who was the national judo coach during the London Olympics, knew something was amiss before Chaudhary's bout.
"Right before we walked out in the arena for the contest, she was nervous. I could tell just by the way she embraced me. I have seen her since she was a 13-year-old. When we walked out, I could see that she was overawed. The lights at the ExCeL Venue were so bright that it would take anyone time to get used to. But we didn’t have the luxury of time as ours was one of the first encounters that day. The boisterous crowd and the presence of British PM David Cameron and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the venue didn't help matters. For a 22-year-old who had barely competed in major events, this was unnerving," narrates Sharma.
A knee ligament injury sustained in training just before the Olympics further complicated matters.
Chaudhary says that the 81-second defeat has shaped her into the athlete she is today.
"At London, it had become really difficult for me to focus. I kept thinking that she's a World No 1 from Japan. I lacked maturity. The pressure was like nothing I had ever experienced before. I realised one thing in those 81 seconds: maarenge nahi toh haarenge (If you don't fight aggressively, you will lose)," says Chaudhary.
But before she could start fighting aggressively, she needed to get back on her feet. As soon as she returned to India, she underwent surgery for the knee injury.
"It was a really tough phase. I was trying to come back as a stronger athlete, but all around me the murmurs were getting impossible to tune out. People kept saying that I was finished and I would never compete for India again," she says, before admitting that the self-doubts contracted by that bruising 81-second defeat in London 2012 took a long time to shrug off. She even credits her defeat in the bronze medal playoff at the 2014 Commonwealth Games to the mental bruising she got at the London Olympics.
"Since that time I have worked on things like explosive strength and speed besides honing the mental aspect," she says.
Ask Chaudhary what ails India's judokas and you get the familiar lament: lack of competitive exposure.
"We get to compete in one world-class tournament a year if we're lucky. In that one competition, how much can we improve?"
Starve a sprinter of competition, he or she can still maybe manage to work on shaving off vital mini seconds. Deny a shooter competitive exposure, and he or she can maybe still aim to achieve more consistency or better form or rhythm while shooting.
In the absence of regular competition, the judoka, just like a wrestler or a boxer, has no way of measuring progress.
Sharma points out that round the year there are scores of top-notch competitions happening in Europe.
"We keep training around the year. But it's a sport where even a small mistake is enough to end your competition. And when you get only one big event to compete in each year, the stakes go up," adds Chaudhary.
It's why she has always trained with boys.
"I have been the best judoka in the country at my weight category for some years now. But, given limited exposure trips or world-class competitions, if I keep training against the second and third ranked female judokas in India, how will I grow as an athlete? They will get better, but I will stagnate. That's why I have always trained against boys. Beating them helps psychologically," she says.
Her lifelong coach Sharma, who now works with judokas at JSW Sports, adds, "She's never considered herself as a female judoka. When she was young and we used to train at NIS Patiala, she would dominate girls in her weight class. So we had to make her fight the boys."
Sharma adds: “At the Asian Games, judokas from Japan, South Korea, Mongolia and Kazakhstan will be the ones to watch out for. But don’t count Garima out.”
Updated Date: Jul 30, 2018 22:07 PM