“Injuries do lead to doubts in your head, you start questioning everything. You wonder what went wrong and what you could have done to prevent it. It was a first-time experience for me at the Tokyo Olympics – to get such an injury before such a big event. Even after eight-nine months, these thoughts kept swirling in my head… that there is something lacking in my body but I don’t know what it is. I felt I was trying hard but my body wasn’t cooperating, I felt I had become slower and wasn’t attacking enough.”
He remains confident heading into the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, but it’s been a tough journey since last year’s Olympics for Bajrang Punia, one of India’s most decorated wrestlers. He won a bronze medal at Tokyo 2020 but that didn’t match his own expectations, and he even went on to pay a big price for it both emotionally and physically.
Bajrang was seeded second at Tokyo – his first Olympic Games – and was touted as one of the favourites to win gold. But heading into the mega event, he hurt his knee and that cost him precious days of preparation. He somehow managed to compete and even won a medal, but the injury got aggravated in the process and that led to a long road to recovery.
“You do regret the mistakes you made in the past, but you have to move on eventually and focus on your training and the next competitions. It’s more about learning from mistakes than regretting them,” Bajrang said during a media interaction organised by the Sports Authority of India before heading for a 35-day training camp in Michigan, from June 25 to July 30.
“The first six-seven months after the Tokyo Olympics were spent in nursing the injury. I was only focused on not aggravating it and moving in the right direction,” said Bajrang.
“I did feel I was being held back. My coaches and I would have plenty of discussions and we did a number of tests to figure out the best course of action. The Olympics is the most important event for any athlete, you want to do anything to win a medal for your country. So getting injured a month before Tokyo led to a very difficult period. But winning a medal despite that setback meant so much to me.”
The 28-year-old, who is also a three-time World Championship medallist and a two-time continental championship winner, won a silver medal at the Asian Championship in April this year. A month later, he sealed a spot for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in trials, before clinching a bronze medal at the Bolat Turlykhanov Cup last month.
“I don’t think the Tokyo experience has led to any change in me as a person or in my training methods. I am as motivated as I ever was and have been working hard with my coaches,” said Bajrang.
“I am absolutely fine now and have been preparing well. I hope to get back to performing like I used to earlier. The World Championships are right after the Commonwealth Games, it is a big tournament and I want to perform well out there too. But the first target remains CWG. I hope to train well, manage the injury, and hopefully you will get to see the Bajrang Punia of 2018 once again.”
For Bajrang, the tournament or the opponent doesn’t matter at the moment, he simply wants to focus on himself and get back to the level he was at before the knee injury. Wrestling competition at CWG level is not the strongest, with many of the Asian powerhouses not present. India won five gold, three silver and four bronze overall in Gold Coast.
“The competition in the Commonwealth Games [for wrestling] isn’t that strong but having said that, you can’t take it lightly either,” the 2018 champion in 65kg category said. “After all I did finish second once in CWG, back in 2014. I will try to give my best because that will even help me understand my level heading into the World Championships. The more tournaments you play the better it is, you understand where you need to improve.”
The injury may have put doubts in his head but Bajrang said he has left no stone unturned in his preparation this year. Along with managing the physical pain, he has tried to fine-tune various aspects of his game.
“Wrestling is a sport in which you have to focus on every little aspect, there is nothing you can avoid working on. Earlier they would say I am not good at leg defence, when I improve my leg defence they said I am not good at attacking. When you’re on the mat, you have to be alert at every moment and try to capitalise on opportunities. Which is why it is important to work on every aspect of your game. You not only have to analyse your own strengths and weaknesses, but you also have to focus on your opponents and what they are capable of,” said Bajrang.
“I am training as much as I can, I do whatever my coaches tell me to do. As far as performance is concerned, though, we will have to wait till the tournament to see my level. I feel I have made great improvements since my injury, I have been feeling good in training and am ready for the competition. Hope I can do well at CWG and build towards the World Championships.”
Since the Tokyo Olympics, Bajrang has faced one of the most challenging phases in his career. From strengthening his knee to dealing with self-doubt to enhancing his game, there’s been a lot to deal with. But come CWG 2022, India’s star grappler will undoubtedly be a strong medal contender. He has raised his game on the big stages a number of times before and he, along with everyone else, knows he can do it again.
“My belief is that I can do well when people have expectations from me. They have those expectations because they know what I’m capable of. It motivates me a great deal,” he said.
And for the star wrestler, the ultimate aim remains Paris: “India has earned wrestling medals in the last four editions of the Olympics, but we are yet to win a gold medal. So I am highly determined to achieve that at Paris 2024.”