NEW DELHI: A knee injury just over a month before the Tokyo Olympics threatened to derail the Bajrang Punia campaign. At a tournament in Russia, Bajrang twisted his right knee. From then until his arrival in Japan, he fell silent.
The sight of Bajrang Punia struggling with an orthosis on his right knee in Tokyo worried fans. The opponents also knew that the Indian was mentally on the way back due to his injury. So Bajrang was worried too. In the semifinals India’s hopes for 65kg of ring gold ended. Bajrang lost to Haji Aliyev from Azerbaijan.
He went into his shell for a while after the defeat before resigning himself to having to face the injury. The chance to win gold had passed. But bronze was still an option. On match day he said to his physiotherapist: “Take off the clip, enough.” And he beat the Kazakhstan Daulet Niyazbekov and finished on the podium with bronze in his Olympic debut.
3️⃣ dominant takedowns in one impressive presentation! 🔥 @ BajrangPunia had absolute control and won the men’s 65kg … https://t.co/1m87XNsqxB
– # Tokyo2020 for India (@ Tokyo2020hi) 1628341618000
TimesofIndia.com was part of the media group that was invited to a virtual press conference with Bajrang, where he told about his trip to Tokyo.
Disappointment about missing gold …
I am disappointed that I couldn’t do what India asked me to do. I was off the mat 20-25 days after injuring my knee a month and a half ago. Because of this, I was able to feel the flaws (in my game). My leg wasn’t moving the way it should. But there are still three years (before Paris 2024). I will definitely try to fight for the gold medal in Paris.
The injury in Russia …
The doctor (in Russia) advised me to rest, but I couldn’t. He advised me to return to India. I told him that training is more important and that traveling is risky due to Covid. I told him whatever rehab needs, 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 wanted to fix it. Whatever they told me to exercise, I did it 3-4 times a day. I stopped sleeping during the day so I could exercise as much as possible to fix the problem.
My thanks also go to the Indian embassy in Russia. You helped a lot, made everything available. Our training base was a small place with not a lot of things available. So the embassy and the SAI made sure that everything was available to me there.
Do you regret playing the tournament in Russia?
I played to measure my performance. I hadn’t played in a while (decided to skip the Poland leaderboard event before going to Russia). I trained in Russia and there was a tournament there. So I planned with the trainer to participate. When it comes to injuries, my sport is such that injuries can happen during training. It’s a contact sport, we have to save. So injuries can happen anywhere. In fact, the risk of injury is higher in training than in a tournament, because in a tournament we are focused, but in training we try different things.
Photo courtesy: Bajrang Punia Twitter
After losing in the semi-finals …
After that, I slept early because I didn’t want to talk to anyone about it. What had happened had happened. I had to focus on bringing my weight back the next morning (in case it went over 65 kg overnight).
Braces are never comfortable …
There was pain in the knee so the orthosis was given by the physiotherapist. In the first few fights in Tokyo, I couldn’t take any chances. But in the last (bronze medal) fight I said I won’t wear it. Most important was the medal. I’ll have time to mend my injury after the fight. So I gave everything to win the medal and didn’t wear anything (braces). I never feel comfortable in it. The physio asked me to wear it to my advantage so that my injury would not worsen. He’s an expert at that. But I asked him not to tape the knee for the bronze medal game. We’ll see later if there are (further) injuries.
The souvenirs …
Every tournament teaches you. Olympic competitions may not give you a chance to correct your mistakes, and they happen every four years, while tournaments like the world championships happen over and over again. The Olympics is every athlete’s greatest dream, and I’ve trained for it. Now I’m going to work on my shortcomings. I’ve learned that if we apply pressure, there is nothing we can do. To win we have to play with a free mind.
Reactions at home …
All parents want their children to win a medal. They said this bronze was worth gold because they knew about my injury. They were concerned and disappointed when the injury happened at such a crucial time. After losing in the semifinals, I called home. My mom said, “I didn’t focus on your wrestling, I focused on your knee because I was so worried. Winning and losing is part of the game.” When I come home now, the first thing I have is my mother’s ‘Chorma’.
The way ahead, decision about coach …
There’s the World Cup in October and the Asian Games & Commonwealth Games next year, so I have to work on rehab first. As far as my coaching is concerned, I didn’t think about the future. Right now we’re talking about what we could have done and improved in Tokyo.
Do you change weight classes?
I will continue to play in the 65kg category, not switch to 74kg.
Tokyo 2020 Silver medalist Ravi Dahiya, left, and bronze medalist Bajrang – Photo courtesy of Bajrang Punia Twitter
Overall, a disappointing wrestling campaign for India?
I also thought we will get 3-4 medals in wrestling. We couldn’t. Deepak (Punia) lost his medal in 10 seconds. That hurt us a lot. But I would like to urge everyone not to criticize those who failed to win a medal. Love her even more.
Would you like to dedicate this medal to someone?
Many warriors have lost their lives in Covid and some are still fighting for us. So I would dedicate this medal to these Covid warriors.