NEW DELHI: On a chilly winter morning, an 11-year-old Bajrang Punia placed pillows on his bedstead and covered them under a sheet to create an impression that he is sleeping there, and left for his 'Akhada' at 2:00am to practice 'kushti' moves with his friends.
When he returned home seven and a half hours later, his mother Om Pyari asked when did he leave? As usual, he lied, saying 4:00 am.
His mother knew that he was hiding the truth but did not scold him.
After all, wrestling was in his blood.
His father and elder brother, too, were ardent practitioners of the sport.
His mother told him only one thing, "Never cry my boy after losing. Never appear weak in front of others. Take defeats in your stride and keep improving."
It was neither his home nor his school but his Akhada (training centre) or the 'Dangals' (mud wrestling competition) where he wanted to be all the time.
He could remain inside the walls of his school only till the attendance was marked.
Once he had said, 'present sir', he would not be found in the class room.
Such was his love and passion for wrestling since childhood.
All he wanted was to wrestle.
It did not matter if the rivals were his weight and age or stronger and older.
At a Dangal in Machhroli village in 2008, when he would weigh about 34kg, Bajrang insisted that he be allowed to wrestle but the competition was meant for those who weighed about 60kg.
"After the organisers gave in to his cajoling and we also let him, he wrestled and pinned that guy," Bajrang's brother Harinder, who was also a wrestler, said.
It was coach Arya Virender, who first began his training at Chhara indoor stadium and worked with him for three years.
His spark and talent was difficult to ignore, and in 2008, he was enrolled at the famous Chhattrasal stadium by his father Balwan Singh.
In two years, he became an Asian Cadet champion and defended the title in 2011.
In his seven years spent at the famous training centre, which had given the country Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, Bajrang won the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games medal to gradually rise to stardom.
His biggest success came when he claimed the 2018 World Championship silver and had been harbouring hopes of winning an Olympic medal since then.
He developed a strong bond with Yogeshwar Dutt and followed him in leaving the Chhatsrasal stadium.
He was soon taking guidance from Yogeshwar and also spending time at the national camp in Bahalgarh.
With Yogeshwar getting involved in politics, Bajrang got a personal coach in Georgian Shako Bentinidis, who helped him by getting quality sparring partners abroad.
It was not only his sweat on the mat but the many sacrifices he happily made in his pursuit of an Olympic medal, that consistently gave him results.
He kept himself away from a cell phone for seven long years and says he has never gone for sight seeing during competitions abroad and doesn't even know how a cinema hall looks like.
These are "small temptations" but Bajrang thinks they can easily distract, so it was necessary to keep a check on himself.
He savoured an extremely successful 2018 season, winning five medals including three at major championships -- CWG, Asian Games and Worlds.
Then he earned the Olympic quota by winning a bronze at the 2019 Worlds.
He was now the only Indian wrestler to have three World medals, after a bronze in 2013 and a silver in 2018.
"There are a lot of things I wanted to do but controlled myself. I always wanted to have a cell phone.
But when I started playing international events in 2010, Yogi Bhai advised against it, saying it was a distraction. Even now when he is around, I hide my phone," he had said in an interaction with PTI.
His leg defence was a talking point in Indian and world wrestling and it still is but, despite the weakness, he has won a much-anticipated Olympic medal.
He is a terrific athlete but what sets him apart is his ability to stay grounded.
"He is a good wrestler but what I like most about him is his humility. He always respects elders and his rivals. Once he is off mat, he is your friend," said Balwan Singh, who named his son after Lord Hanuman, who is worshipped at the 'Akahdas'.