Turning Point: 'No one sees an athlete's dark days', says Bajrang Punia as he recalls 2011 and 2015 injuries
Bajrang Punia recalls those two injuries that were the turning points of his career.
Editor's Note: In every athletes' life comes a moment that flips his/her career around. A solitary slice of inspiration, a date with destiny, an important result, a wise word, the proverbial turning point may arrive in any shape or form and end up defining the said athlete. In Turning Point, Firstpost's latest weekly series, we look at some such moments.
In a corner of Bajrang Punia’s mind lurks the memory of the 2015 World Championships.
He has three medals from the Worlds to his name ― two more than any other Indian grappler ― but the one that got away five years ago in Las Vegas is one that he says was one of the turning points of his career.
“Ek khiladi ke jeevan ki roshni toh sabko dikti hai. Lekin usne kitne andhere dekhe hain woh nahi dikhta logon ko (Everyone sees the highs of an athlete’s careers, no one sees the dark days),” Bajrang tells Firstpost.
The 2015 World Championships almost could have been the highlight of a career littered with highlights. Bajrang, then 21 years of age, had seen nearly nine months of his career wither away due to a back injury.
“Koi bachcha jab wrestling start karta hai, waisa haal ho gaya tha mera (My body looked as frail as that of a kid who was just starting out),” says Bajrang. “I didn’t require surgery, but I had that injury for eight-nine months. It was almost like getting surgery, cause a surgery heals in that much time. Because of that injury I had to miss the Asian Wrestling Championships. My weight, which was usually around 68 kgs, had dropped to 61 kgs. My body had no muscle.”
Despite this, Bajrang made the team for the Worlds. At Las Vegas, though, the lack of sharpness for having been sidelined due to injury showed. His challenge seemed to be over in just three and a half deflating minutes as he lost in the first round. This was the World Championships, after all, where the level of competition is said to be tougher than the Olympics itself.
“I told myself that it was okay because I had hardly trained due to the injury,” he says.
But then another window opened up. Mongolian Nomin Batbold, who had swept Bajrang 10-0 in the first round, was in the final and the Indian had another shot at a medal via the repechage― that delightful word that had unlocked doors for Indian wrestlers to medal at three Olympics.
Bajrang wasn’t going to let the second chance slip. He beat American Reece Humphrey easily in the first round. In the second round ― a wild bout against Georgian Beka Lomtadze ― he escaped being pinned in the first period and then pinned the Georgian in the second.
There was more drama to come as he fought Ukrainian Vasyl Shuptar in the bronze medal playoff. Leading 6-4 until the last 30 seconds, he conceded a takedown to allow the Ukranian to draw level. Having won the last points in the bout, the Ukrainian was awarded the medal on criteria.
“I lost that bout even though the score was 6-6 in the end. That loss rankled. I started to think about how if I had trained slightly more I could medalled at that event. I’d already won a bronze in 2013. If only I had won a medal at Las Vegas, I could have become the first wrestler from India to have won two medals at the Worlds,” says Bajrang, who did become the first Indian to win two Worlds medals in 2018 when he won silver at Budapest.
“I waited five years for that second (Worlds) medal,” says the 26-year-old. The wait for a third-medal was a lot shorter as he clinched bronze at Nur Sultan World Championships in 2019. But still those two medals have done little to subdue the ache Las Vegas 2015 left him with.
“Coming so close and losing out on a medal (in 2015) fuelled a hunger inside me. That’s when I decided that I have to win an Olympic gold anyhow. I started training like a mad man,” he says. “That 2015 injury taught me never to give up. It doesn’t matter if no one is supporting you. If you refuse to be defeated in your mind, nothing can defeat you.”
Bajrang recalls another injury, early in his life, that nearly altered the course of his career.
Back in 2011, when Bajrang was still competing on the sub-junior level, he injured his neck at a dangal.
“It was such a severe injury that it kept me off the mat for five-six months,” he recalls.
“In 2015, I had every facility I needed: I had great sponsors in JSW Sports, I had my own physio. Par 2011 main toh koi poochta bhi nahi tha (Back in 2011, no one knew me). There were no sponsors, no physios, and no facilities like I do today. I had to do everything on my own, figure out which doctor to approach and then do my rehabilitation. I’ve emerged after grappling with those things.
“Those two injuries were learning curves. I realised how much an injury can hamper an athlete’s career,” he says.
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