Tokyo Olympics 2020: Limited training, restricted movement, how Bajrang Punia wrestled his way to bronze
“The knee was quite uncomfortable. The pain was always there. I could not move freely due to the strapping,’ bronze medal-winning wrestler Bajrang Punia said.
New Delhi: Tokyo Games bronze medallist Bajrang Punia’s Olympic campaign was marred by an injury to his right knee that he picked at the Ali Aliyev tournament in June.
Bajrang injured his knee during the semi-final bout against Abulmazhid Kudiev in Russia and resorted to physiotherapy and rehabilitation to be able to take the mat at the Olympics. In Tokyo, barring his bronze medal playoff against Daulet Niyazbekov, he grappled with a strapped knee.
Speaking to media persons on Sunday, the three-time World Championships medallist detailed his struggles leading up to and during the Games. “It was quite uncomfortable. The pain was always there. I could not move freely due to the strapping on my knee. I wanted the fight without that strapping, but trainers and physiotherapists told me that it would put my knee to greater risk.”
Bajrang appeared rusty in his wins against Ernazar Akmataliev of Kyrgyzstan and Morteza Ghiasi of Iran, and his quest for gold ended with a 12-5 loss to Azerbaijan’s three-time world champion Haji Aliyev in the semi-final. The 27-year said he was advised by his physio and coaches not to go full steam in the initial bouts to protect his dodgy knee. However, in the bronze medal match, he decided to go all-out.
“Against Niyazbekov, I decided to take that risk. I am generally not comfortable with taping on my knee. I feel as if my leg is tied to something. I thought even if the knee gets injured, it doesn’t really matter as I will have enough time to rest after the Olympics. I was determined not to go home empty-handed,” said the wrestler whose last major injury was in 2015 when back trouble kept him out of action for close to nine months.
Following his knee injury in Russia, Bajrang was forced to skip training for over three weeks. Even basic running was out of bounds for close to 45 days, contributing to his evident lack of rhythm in Tokyo.
“Luckily for me, I don’t have a problem with managing my weight. But being away from the mat for 20-25 days ahead of an Olympics is not easy. The doctors recommended no running for 30-45 days,” he said.
Bajrang was, in fact, advised to go home to rest his injured knee and fly to Tokyo from India. He, however, decided against it to protect himself from exposure to the COVID-19 threat. In the days leading up to Tokyo Games, the wrestler completely cut down on his afternoon breaks to work on his knee.
“I told my doctors that I would like to rehabilitate in Russia and not travel home. My physio gave me a few leg exercises. I have a habit of catching 2-3 hours of sleep in the afternoon to rest my body, but since the doctors had told me that the more I exercise, the stronger my knee will become, I chucked those sleep hours completely to work out. All that eventually put me in a position to take the mat at the Games,” he said.
Post his semi-final defeat, a distraught Bajrang locked himself in his room on the pretext of sleep, but could barely nap.
“I was obviously very disappointed. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, so I told my team that I want to sleep. However, the defeat was just impossible to remove from my head. I slept for hardly a couple of hours that night and was waiting to wrestle for bronze.”
Indian wrestlers ended their campaign with two medals – Ravi Dahiya’s silver being the other podium finish – but Bajrang said he expected the group to go home with 3-4 medals.
“Deepak Punia lost his bronze medal match in last seconds. That was quite close, otherwise, we would have had at least one more medal. But yes, overall, I think a lot more was expected of us and we should have done better,” he added.
Bajrang’s next targets are the World Championships in October, followed by the Commonwealth and Asian Games, both of which he is the defending champion.
The wrestler also urged the country to support all athletes, even those who couldn’t win a medal.
“I am truly humbled with the support and love we have got from India. I would like to request everyone in India to extend their whole-hearted support to those athletes who couldn’t win. Only an athlete can understand the pain of loss after all the efforts he/she has put in. Those who didn’t win need more support,” he signed off.