A fortnight ago, Deepak Punia had won his first-ever spot on the Indian team for a senior World Championships. But instead of thinking about the Nur-sultan tournament, which will also be an Olympic qualifying event, he was dreaming about Tallinn where the junior World Championships are going on.
Before he flew to Tallinn, he promised himself that nothing below a gold medal would be satisfying. It was a feat that only three Indian wrestlers had achieved in the past but no one had managed it in the last 18 years.
“I know this is my last chance,” Punia said. “I want to do it and win.”
The 20-year-old from Haryana fulfilled his promise by winning the gold medal for India after 18 years at the junior World Championships on Thursday. Punia, a silver medallist last year at the same tournament, defeated Russia’s Alik Shebzukhov 2-2 in the 86 kg gold medal bout.
“This is my toughest medal yet. I have won at senior level but this feels different, so important,” Punia told Scroll.in from Tallinn.
Punia became the fourth Indian wrestler to win a junior Worlds title. In men’s freestyle, Ramesh Gulia and Palwinder Singh Cheema won gold medals in the 69 kg and 130 kg gold medals at the 2001 World Championships in Tashkent. Before that, Pappu Yadav had claimed the same medal in 50 kg at 1992 junior World Championships in Cali, Colombia.
“It was a tough bout for Deepak,” Parvesh Maan, coach of the junior team, said. “The Russian gave no chance to attack and thankfully he never tires so he managed to get a takedown late in the bout. It is great that he has ended a long wait for India.”
For the two days, Punia dominated his field winning 10-1 against Milan Korcsog of Hungary in the pre-quarterfinal and then defeated Hunter Lee of Canada 5-1. Both were slow-paced bouts with Punia playing by the clock well to tire his opponents. In the semi-final, a sluggish Punia was trailing 1-2 with just over a minute left but he forced two step-outs and completed a 3-2 win over Miriani Maisuradze of Georgia. But during the bout against Maisuradze, he injured his shoulder.
“It was a bit scary because I thought I would not able to wrestle but thankfully it held up,” he said. “There is still pain but abhi kuch lag nahi raha [I am not feeling it now].”
In the final, the Indian trailed 0-2 after the first period and Shebzukhov worked up great defensive position to avoid Punia. But as the bout progressed, Shebzukhov could not handle the wearing down by the Indian who managed to bring down the Russian for two points in the fifth minute. The score remained 2-2 till the end of six minute and Punia won based on criteria (wrestler winning the last point.)
Chhara to Chhatarsaal
The happiness of the gold in not only felt in Tallinn but in Chhara as well. Around 6,000 kilometres away in Jhajjar district, Subhash was watching his son win a gold medal at a World Championship for the first time. When he had won the cadet world title back in 2016, Subhash did not have a smartphone. But this time he did and he was able to watch his son stand atop the podium.
“I am so proud,” Subhash said. “I haven’t talked to him since yesterday but I know how good he is feeling. I used to sell milk and today I don’t need to do that because of my son. I used to wrestle but we were very poor. Some of the wrestler who began with me competed internationally. So I wanted my son to do it.”
“Mauj-masti vala ladka hai [He enjoys every moment],” he said. “Even when he used to participate in competition, he would go on his own with his friends and come back after wrestling.”
Punia’s first prize money was Rs 7100 from a dangal in Delhi where he was crowned a Bal Kesari at the age of 12 years. But since then, he has come a long way. After beginning his wrestling in Chhara, in 2014 he moved to Chhatarsaal stadium, arguably India’s best wrestling school, in New Delhi. He has multiple national titles in the age-group category however he is yet to win a gold medal at the senior level.
Internationally, he has a bronze medal at the Asian Championships this year. He later won the silver medal at the Yasar Dogu ranking series after a bronze at the Sassari ranking tournament.
“Chhatarsaal has some of the best wrestlers and people take care of him there,” Subhash said. “I am free now. Sushil Kumar, Satpal, coach Virender, they all keep him under his watch. He will only improve.”
Another man who has honed the skills of this young wrestler in Vladimir Metreshvili, the Georgian who was the former coach of India until Rio Olympics. Punia has benefited immensely from Metreshvili’s guidance.
Now, Punia needs to prepare to represent India at the senior World Championships for the first time in September. Subhash knows his son will once again make him proud.
“Sub-junior he has won, junior today and senior is left,” he said. “He will win it one day and hopefully it is this year. He is very grounded and takes wrestling seriously.”
Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is the only Indian to win a senior world title. He also won the cadet world title twice in 1998 and 1999.
But with Tallinn now a thing of past, Punia is dreaming about Nur-sultan.
“I will train hard because there is nothing bigger than that event now,” he said. “Maybe rest this shoulder for 10 days and then hitting the mat again. It would be great to qualify for Olympics. How many in India have three world titles? No one.”