Had it not been for this pandemic, Bajrang Punia would have been in the final stages of his Tokyo Olympics preparation. “I was ready for the Olympics. I would have competed in the first week of August,” Punia said with a tinge of regret in his voice. Instead, Punia has now placed himself in 14-day quarantine at the Inspire Institute of Sport–the JSW centre in Vijayanagar–getting ready to reboot his preparation for the postponed event.
Whatever time he is getting, Punia is looking to utilise that to strengthen his skills on the mat. “You have to look at the positive side. Now that we have more time in our hand, how we can use it to our advantage. Every athlete is facing a similar situation. If I work with patience to overcome my shortcomings I will be better prepared for 2021,” said Punia.
During the lockdown at his flat in Sonepat, Punia was training with Asian Championships silver medallist (74kg) Jitender Kumar. He arranged a mat and some gym equipment too. “We used to be at home and train, so there was no risk involved. We decided to come to IIS centre once the lockdown eased and domestic flights started. We are taking all precautions here and will be in quarantine till June 30. After that we will resume training.”
Punia’s training will be monitored by 2004 Olympic Champion from Cuba, Yandro Quintana, with regular coach Shako Bentinidis providing backup in planning his schedule and routine. “They will plan my schedule. Shako has been in regular touch and giving me schedules. He is ready to join me once things normalise,” he said.
“It is difficult to train with online instructions. The presence of a coach in the mat makes a lot of difference in pointing out mistakes. But nothing much can be done right now. There is a foreign coach (Quintana) who will monitor my training. It is a good facility here and nobody is allowed inside, so it is safe. There is no competition right now so I am going to take it as off-season training,” he said.
Going by his performance in his last competition–Asian Championships here in Delhi in February, Punia will need to cover some ground. He was outplayed by Japanese Takuto Otoguro, whose speed and counterattack inflicted a crushing 10-2 defeat. Punia had also lost to him in the world championships final in 2018. The 65kg category is one of the toughest with several top contenders, Punia being one of them. The Indian had also lost a close semi-final in the 2019 world championships against Kazakh wrestler Daulet Niyazbekov. Punia’s penchant to go for the offensive has often been deemed a drawback as well.
Punia, however, is bent on counting it as his strength. “That is my style. I cannot change it now. It is my strength. You can change your style when you are a junior, not now. If I change it now I will be at a disadvantage. So I have to work on my weaker points and not think of changing my style of wrestling.”
“Like, if I have to attack, I also have to think of my safety. I am working on that aspect. I am working on my speed and power so that my attacks are strong and when I come on the mat I am able to last for full six minutes. I have analysed my bouts after the Asian Championships and discussed with my coach on how to prepare,” he said
Punia said that proper competition would prepare him better going into next year’s Olympics. “We can test ourselves only in tournaments and after this long gap it will be very important to get some tournaments. I hope to play 3-4 tournaments before the Olympics, whatever is possible, so that I can assess my preparation. At the world level it is very important to gauge yourself against your top opponents.”