CHENNAI: It was just another day of training in Georgia for Bajrang Punia. The grappler was going all out on the mat along with foreign coach Shako Bentinidis ahead of the World Championships to be held on September 14 to 22 at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. By evening, the wrestler got a call informing that his name has been nominated for the prestigious Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award by a 12-member panel in New Delhi. But he did not sound surprised. He shouldn’t either. Tipped as the favourite to get the coveted award last year, Bajrang was slighted by the committee in favour of Virat Kohli and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu. Hurt and anguished, Bajrang even mulled going to court. However, on the advice of his guru Yogeshwar Dutt, he sacrificed it for wrestling. “I asked him to concentrate on his wrestling and not get distracted by all these court cases,” Dutt told this newspaper.
Far away in Georgia, Bajrang too felt relieved. Nomination has definitely brought immense joy, but for Bajrang it is a recognition of years of gruel and toil interspersed with sacrifices. “Any award is important for any athlete. It motivates you. And I am not surprised that I got nominated for it. I have been doing well and I deserve the award,” he told this daily.
“Awards motivate. But there are important competitions to prepare for. Winning more medals is a bigger motivation than these awards,” he added. And it is not just the wrestler who feels that he is a deserving candidate. Men’s national coach Jagminder also resonated the same thoughts on the 25-year-old. “He should have got it last year. Such is his dedication and discipline that it was a surprise he did not get the award last year,” he said.
It has been a long arduous journey for the wrestler. More so for sharing a weight category with his guru Dutt. Bajrang grew up as a ‘sishya’. Until his guru was wrestling, Bajrang was just an understudy, grappling with destiny. It was only when Yogeshwar stopped entering in competitions that he filled in. Here and there, he started with 60Kg and then moved to 65kg, turning into a regular after Dutt’s 2016 Olympics outing. Bajrang might have missed out on a few occasions, but the practice sessions he shared with London Olympics bronze medallist made him the grappler he is.
“That would have helped but what makes him stand out is his attitude,” Dutt told this newspaper. “Woh bahut mehnati hai (He is very hard-working). He never gives up and his technique has improved.” Like Dutt, Bajrang too seeks perfection. “Whenever he is here he likes to practice in my academy because he can concentrate harder. I also work with him very closely.”
With World Championships and Olympics being primary targets for the youngster, there is no time to waste according to Dutt. “He is very focussed. If things go well, he should be winning gold at the World Championships,” he said.
Dutt also believes that he should be winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, considering the way Bajrang is grappling. “We will work for the gold.”
And as far as the nomination is concerned, even Dutt is not surprised by the decision. “He deserved it last year,” said Dutt. After a World Championships silver (65kg) last year and a bronze (60kg) in 2013, it is the perfect time to grab that deserving yellow metal this time.