Bajrang Punia put in the hours during the lockdown to make a triumphant return to the mat in Rome.
First published: https://www.indiatoday.in/magazine/leisure/story/20210405-the-ace-hustler-1784253-2021-03-27
The Ace Hustler
Towards the end of 2020, Punia married wrestler Sangeeta Phogat, after which he travelled to the US for training and an invitational tournament.
After picking up silver at the Asian Championships in February 2020, the pandemic slowed Bajrang Punia’s training considerably. The freestyle wrestler had to train without a sparring partner and with his Georgian coach, Shako Bendinitis, screaming instructions over the internet. Towards the end of 2020, Punia married wrestler Sangeeta Phogat, after which he travelled to the US for training and an invitational tournament.
Earlier this month, at the Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome, Punia’s first real competition in a year and one where he was also defending champion, the sailing wasn’t particularly smooth, but the wrestler picked up gold and reclaimed the World No. 1 ranking in the 65 kg category. Now focused on the Tokyo Olympics, to be held in July, the wrestler reflects on his recent victory and the year gone by. Excerpts:
Q. You won from 0-2 down with 45 seconds to go against Tulga Tumur Ochir. What was going through your head?
I was planning my next move. Until it’s over, keep on hustling, that’s the rule. You lead or you chase. Accepting defeat before the game is even over, that’s losing in the true sense.
Q. Do you perform better under pressure?
I don’t enjoy it, but my game is more about endurance. I keep my cool and keep working till the end.
Q. What was it like to train without a partner during the lockdown?
The pandemic was tough for everyone. I’m lucky to have a dedicated team around me. Training without a partner was difficult. Physically, I was getting better but I have to ultimately perform on the mat. So, it was not a great experience.
Q. How did you keep yourself motivated to train with no event to train for, especially with your coach available only virtually?
It was a team effort. We motivated each other. They were there for me and I was there for them. It was a collective effort.
Q. How did the training stint and tournament last year in Michigan, US, help you get ready for competition?
What does one do after building a car? Take it for a test ride! Michigan was my test ride. It was the first competition after a long break and I needed to see how well I was prepared for it. I want to keep working and stick to the programme in the months leading up to the Olympics.
Q. How has marriage changed you?
Wow, how do you answer that safely? I think I am the same person, just more careful and better-organised. We discuss a lot of wrestling. Honestly, there is no way I cannot bring my work home. It’s like I am living at my workplace now.