Pooja Rani is in a good mood these days. She recently won the gold medal in the 75 kg category at the Asian Boxing Championships with a comprehensive win over Mavluda Movlonova of Uzbekistan. It was a solid win over an in-form boxer, who had beaten London Olympics medallist Marina Volnova in the last-four stage and it places her in a very good frame of mind ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
The journey to the Olympics has been anything but easy for all those involved and Pooja isn’t an exception. The pandemic has put a spanner in the works and it almost led to the boxer pulling out of the event.
“When there was a spate of positive cases at our camp, since I was in contact with them, I was quarantined as well for 7 days,” Pooja Rani told Scroll.in in an interview. “Then, when I went to IIS, I was quarantined for another 7 days. So for around 15 days, I was in quarantine and I felt I was in no position to compete at the Asian Championships. For 15 days I had virtually not been able to train and it takes at least a week to get fighting fit again.”
The 30-year-old, who is now managed by Baseline Ventures, further added: “I was mentally disturbed and I called the coach and said, ‘I don’t want to take part in the Asian Championships because I am not ready.’ So that is when I was persuaded by the coach to not worry about the Asian Championships but to instead keep an eye on the Olympics. Then, with that off my mind, I trained hard for 15 days and started feeling good about my condition.”
Due to the pandemic, the last one year has had a very stop-start quality to it and that means the athletes are even second-guessing their preparation at times. Not ideal for preparation and certainly not ideal in an Olympic year.
“Initially, I was thinking that one year is a lot of time but then for around six months we were at home, unable to train as we would have liked due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but as the start date of the Olympics drew closer, I started feeling I didn’t have too much time left,” said Pooja Rani.
She added: “So around six months back, we started calling the Federation to get the camps started so that we can get in the kind of shape we need to be in. The first camps to start were in boxing. After that we went to Italy and trained there for two months, competed in a few tournaments and got good exposure as well.
“But from time to time, even during those tournaments, someone kept getting tested positive. And then even before the Asian Championships, we have quite a few positive cases and that led to the camp being shutdown as well. At that point, I wasn’t feeling good at all and I didn’t even feel like talking to anyone. There were just two months left for the Olympics and we couldn’t even train. It was a huge dampener but the results in the Asian Championships were a big boost and they taught me to trust myself and the hard work I have put in over the years that little bit more.”
Indeed, it might be said that India and Pooja needed the boost that winning provides. With the condition in the country still bad, the Indian boxing contingent will be heading to Italy on June 15 to kick their preparations into an even higher gear.
Pooja realises that there isn’t enough time to make any drastic changes to techniques. Rather, she wants to get in the ring and spar to her heart’s content.
“India also has quite a few good boxers in my weight category now. The 75 kg category was included in the Rio Olympics and it is there this time as well which means that there is a good deal of interest there. But because of the pandemic, we have only two boxers (one in the 69kg category and another in the 75 kg) who I can properly spar against. So, we are going back to Italy now so that we can have access to the best sparring partners.”
Knowledge is power
India’s boxers have been getting consistent success in international tournaments. They are starting to do well at the youth level as well and all of that put together creates a great sense of belief in the camp. No longer do they go in just wanting to make up the numbers. Now, they are looking to win it all.
“The big change in the last 5-6 years has been the amount of exposure that we have been getting,” said Pooja Rani. “Every 2-3 months we usually take part in an invitational international tournament and because of that our experience has increased and our confidence levels have been boosted. The nerves associated with facing a top boxer are not as bad as they once were. We know what they can do. We know there is nothing to fear.
“As a result of this experience, the manner in which I analyse what is happening in the ring has changed — we can understand when we are leading or when we are behind. Earlier, we didn’t have as much knowledge but now we trust ourselves more. To have this judgment is very important because we instinctively know when we need to push ourselves more during a bout.”
The experience also shows in how prepared Pooja Rani is to adapt. Against top-level opponents, you can’t go in with one plan. You can’t even rely on just what your coach tells you. Being able to spot weaknesses and take advantage of them while the bout in on is of vital importance.
“There is no one such style as such,” said Pooja Rani. “We are always looking at our opponent and then deciding how to fight the bout. Against some, we will look to be aggressive but against others we might backpedal more. But I usually rely on power and I believe that works best for me.
But what doesn’t always work well is the response of athletes to public pressure. Over the past few years, shooting, wrestling and boxing have been established as sports in which India have a chance of medalling at the Olympics. It brings them funding and exposure but also big expectations.
“Well, honestly, I try and not think too much about public opinion,” said Pooja Rani. “They don’t really have an idea about the sport but they do want to pass judgement. I prefer instead to focus on those who are close to me or my coaches and listen to them instead. So I don’t look at it as pressure. I feel gratified that they think we have a chance and realise that their expectations are only because of that.”
She added: “It means we have been doing something right. In the past we have seen Vijender Singh win a medal, we have seen Mary Kom win a medal but this time we have Mary, we have Vikas and as a unit, we have been doing well and I think that we might bring home a few more medals this time.”