Tokyo Olympics 2020: Bajrang Punia, Vikas Krishan staying focused on goal despite coronavirus forcing longest-ever off-season
Despite the coronavirus pandemic disrupting their preparations for the Olympics and imposing upon them their longest off-seasons, Bajrang Punia and Vikas Krishan, two of India's biggest hopes for a medal at Tokyo 2020 are upbeat.
Wrestler Bajrang Punia hasn't ever had an off-season as long as the one right now. Neither has boxer Vikas Krishan.
Two of India's biggest hopes of a medal at the now deferred Tokyo 2020 Games have had to abandon plans and recalibrate their lives for the Olympics, as has the rest of the world, due to the coronavirus pandemic. But they’re not complaining.
“Kehte hain samay ek hi baar mauka deta hai, toh main yeh mauka gawana nahi chahta. (They say life gives you a major opportunity like the Olympics only once. So I don’t want to let this opportunity slip from my fingers),” Bajrang told reporters in a virtual press conference to mark the two years of Inspire Institute of Sport in Vijayanagar where he has been based for the past two months.
“This is a life-altering time in the world right now,” said Manisha Malhotra, who is the head of Sports Excellence and Scouting at JSW Sports. “It has been a challenge. When you talk to the elite athletes who are going to Tokyo, this is not usual for anybody. They’ve had to come out of their comfort zone in one sense or the other. Many of the athletes have had to alter their training programs and methods in very drastic ways.”
When the lockdown started and athletes were confined to their homes with the schedules thrown out of the window, Bajrang, India’s top contender for gold on the wrestling mat at the Olympics, ensured that he didn’t miss a single day of training despite his coach, Shako Bentinidis, flying home to Georgia. Bajrang even bought a small wrestling mat for him home to keep chipping away.
“Lockdown was a difficult time for everyone. Because tournaments have not happened in a while, we don't know whether our performance has dipped, or risen to a higher level. I have never stopped training for even a day,” said Bajrang. The grappler pointed out that it was slightly easier for him to deal with the uncertainty of the wrestling calendar due to the fact that he’s already qualified for Tokyo 2020 ― when he won bronze at the World Championships in September last year.
“I already have a target in mind because I have qualified for the Olympics. Athletes who have not qualified for Tokyo, will find it difficult because they don't know when competitions will resume. So they have to first worry about qualifying, and then about competing at the Olympics,” he said.
With the coronavirus pandemic opening up a massive chunk of space in the wrestler’s otherwise relentless calendar, he’s tried his hands at cross-fit training with boxing coaches at IIS.
He will stay at IIS until the wrestling camp for Olympic wrestlers begins on 1 September.
“When you get injured it’s a different issue. But this is a completely different situation, where we are fit, can train, but still have restrictions and are not training with any immediate tournament on the horizon,” he said.
The delay in the Olympics has resulted in frustration, anxiety and uncertainty for many athletes who have spent four years of their life counting down to get their few minutes of deserved fame under the Olympic spotlight.
Vikas, a man brimming with self-confidence, is not one of them.
“I wasn’t too frustrated (when the Olympics postponement announcement was made by the International Olympic Committee). It’s a part of life. For the last two Olympics, I qualified late. So I wasn’t in too good a shape to prepare for the Olympics. But now I have not only qualified early, but also have one extra year to prepare,” said Vikas, who qualified for Tokyo with a silver medal at the Asian Boxing Olympic Qualifiers held in Amman in March, right before nations across the world started imposing lockdowns to prevent the spread of coronavirus .
While other athletes who have qualified for Tokyo 2020 only have to focus only on their sport, Vikas, by virtue of competing in the professional ranks, has to adjust to two different sports. He said that it takes him nearly four to five months switching between the two forms of boxing.
“It is difficult for me to switch from amateur to professional, because they’re totally different sports. Amateur boxing is only about scoring, professional boxing is hurting people. Now that I have qualified for the Olympics early on, I have been able to train for pro boxing for the past few months,” he said.
Vikas said his next professional bout was likely to be in October and he will return to India in January or February,
“This way I will have six-seven months to get back in the amateur boxing routine,” he said.
He credited professional boxing for having made him a totally different boxer.
“Some years back, Indian boxers would hope that they shouldn't draw Cuban or Russians in the first round. Since I started doing professional boxing, my mindset is totally different. I'm a totally different guy. Whoever comes in front of me in the ring, I'm going to beat him. That's my mindset right now. I'm a whole different version,” he said.
Asked how unusual the current situation was, he said: “You have to do some odd things to get the gold at the Olympics, you cannot just go with the flow.”
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