CHENNAI: There was first a look of bemusement. Ajay Thakur’s reaction suggested that he had heard the question but wanted to do a double-take. His facial expression was priceless. So he asked the scribe to repeat the question just to be sure.“Your thoughts on being nominated for the Arjuna award by the selection committee?” The first words he said were: “Who? Me? Really... wow.” He finally managed a big smile after composing himself. “I am just delighted,” he said after searching for the right words. “Awards like the Arjuna push us sportspersons further because from the very beginning, every athlete dreams of winning them.”
This award for Thakur, one of the sport’s biggest superstars, is validation for the work he has put in over the last 15 years. His cupboard stands testimony. Multiple Asian Games and the 2016 World Cup gold medal adorns his collection. The award is also a vindication for the decision Ajay took mere months before the 2016 Kabaddi World Cup.
The raider wanted to quit the contact sport because he had had enough. Both his knees, thanks to constant wear and tear, had begun resembling a war-zone. He wanted a break from all of it, to to preserve his body after years of living through the unforgiving cycle of injury, surgery, rest, rehabilitation, excellence and injury. That’s when his father intervened.
Thakur senior, who himself took months to recover from a gas cylinder explosion at his home in Nalagarh (Himachal Pradesh), changed Ajay’s mind with some frank talk. A few months after, Ajay turned on the style to help a less-than-impressive India beat Iran in the 2016 final.
For most elite athletes, a World Cup gold would be the crowning glory. But for the 33-year-old, it’s just one among many unique achievements.Ajay’s 2014 Asian Games gold was the first time an athlete from Himachal had won the yellow metal at that level. He also become the first men’s kabaddi player to win the Padma Shri, earlier this year. “I have been playing for India since the last 15 years and kept yearning for the Arjuna, thinking that one day I would be able to bag it. I still cannot believe it.”