Bajrang Punia has had a meteoric rise in the world of freestyle wrestling ever since he took up the sport at an early age.
Not only has he won a clutch of medals in prestigious events such as the World and Asian Championships, as well as the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, he recently became the first Indian to be ranked No 1 in the world across any weight category.
Perhaps the only glory that has eluded him so far is that of an Olympic medal, one that he hopes to wear on the podium in Tokyo next year.
However, Punia, who won eight gold medals across his last nine tournaments, isn’t thinking too far ahead.
The 2019 edition of the World Championships, which takes place at Kazakhstan’s Nur-Sultan between 14 to 22 September, is his first priority as the event will serve as the qualifier for the Tokyo Olympics.
“Right now I’m focused on the World Championships, which is the qualifying tournament for the Olympics. So I’m setting my sights on completing the qualification process for my maiden Olympics, and not really thinking too far ahead yet,” said Punia.
Punia derives a lot of confidence, not only from his consistent run in the recent events, but also from his training regime. The 25-year-old believes his preparation has kept him in a positive frame of mind as well as clear of injuries.
“One automatically derives confidence from ideal preparation and training. Those who don’t train hard cannot enter a competition in a positive frame of mind.
“I have so far steered clear of injury and try to keep myself in peak fitness at all times, because an injury can result in an athlete lagging behind in the competition,” added Punia.
Punia will enter the World Championships as one of the favourites in the 65 kilogram category, however there are a couple of concerns in his technique that needs addressing, primarily his leg defence that his opponents have capitalised on more often than not.
“When you are preparing for a tournament, you always work on ensuring that you don’t repeat the mistakes made in the past. My leg defence is a little weak, and I am putting extra focus on overcoming that weakness. It will be better if I go for the defence a little earlier than usual every time my opponent attacks,” added the native of Khudan, a village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district.
Punia was introduced to wrestling legend Yogeshwar Dutt at the age of 14 by a fellow wrestler from his native place, who happened to be a friend of Yogeshwar’s. Since then, the Olympic bronze medallist took him under his wings, and continues to counsel him till date. For Punia, training with his idol was something of a dream come true.
“He would always keep motivating me at any given time of the day, whether it would be related to training or even general things in life. He would point out my mistakes and tell me not to ever repeat them.
He was never too strict with me, was more of an elder brother. I may have come a long way in my career, but he still counsels me over the areas on which I need to work, and the mistakes that I need to rectify,” added Punia.
He cannot ignore the role that his coach Emzarios ‘Shako’ Bentinidis has played his growth as a wrestler either.
“I have been associated with ‘Shako’ for a year and a half now. Earlier it used to be a very difficult task getting quality training partners. Thanks to Shako, I always get some of the best partners to spar with in my training sessions overseas, given his presence removes the language barrier.
“He helps me out with my training and he devotes his entire focus on me. He’s always around and keeps discussing wrestling with me, the areas where I can improve upon, etc,” added Punia, who recently became the first Indian wrestler to compete at the Madison Square Garden.