CHENNAI: Training, competing and the pressure to qualify for the Olympics plod you to do things that are not common. Travelling 1400km by road, taking Covid test after test, filling out innumerable forms and missing flights, it has been quite the journey for Seema Punia.
For the last two years, especially after the Asian Games, things have not been easy for the Asian and Commonwealth Games medallist. From personal to professional, she has been ruffled by situations that needed strong mental resilience. Finally, after desperately trying to qualify for the Olympics, spending two years in Russia, Seema qualified on the last day of the qualification cycle –- June 29 -- with a throw of 63.70m. She flew to Mumbai the day after for a last-minute check-up on any injury or niggle and management.
She felt that her two years of training would not go to waste. "I think this Olympics will be good for athletics. I am hoping to do well."
Though Seema, who doesn't have a permanent training base in Russia, knew qualification was just a throw away, yet that mark was eluding her in the competitions she participated in. She flew to India after two years to compete at the Federation Cup in March but her throw was not enough. However, during the Inter-State athletics, she seemed more relaxed.
"During the Fed Cup, our plan was to come one day before the event," said the 37-year-old thrower, who would be competing in her fourth Olympics. "We did not get flights and whatever flights we got were 30-40 hours ones. I was returning after two years so did not know (that) so many things had changed. We were not aware that we had to fill in some extra forms before leaving the country. Because of all these things, there was a lot of anxiety." She recalls how in the melee, she left behind a bag with her throwing shoes in it. “I usually keep a pair of my throwing shoes and a discus in a small bag. I competed with an extra pair.'
Interestingly, after the Asian Games, her shoe size changed due to an injury to her foot. "Before the Asian Games, I used to wear 9 (UK) and throwing shoes used to be 8-8-and-a-half but after the injury, I wear 10 (UK) and throwing shoes is 9 and a half and 10. I have to put an arch and that alters the size of the shoes. All my old shoes have gone to waste."
Seema's next trip too was more eventful. Driving for 1400m from her training base in Krasnodar to Moscow, a false positive for her trainer, last-minute change of flights before reaching Minsk for Belarus Open athletics. Since her passport was at the Moscow embassy for a visa, she could not take a flight or a bus. "I had to travel by road for around 1400km on June 19. We reached Moscow by June 20 night. We went to the Embassy to collect my passport and they told me I could enter Belarus on June 24. I had to explain to them and finally got the date changed so that we could reach a day earlier. We hurried to get the flight after getting our Covid tests. In between, my trainer had a false positive. So I requested the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to change the date of travel and rushed to the other airport which is some 40-50km away."
She failed to qualify at Minsk thanks to a modest throw and had to rely on her result at the Inter-State in Patiala. The pressure was building and her next journey started.
"I must thank the AFI for keeping the discus event on June 29. I reached Patiala in the wee hours of June 27. I don't think this (63.70m) was my good throw because there were only four girls and the rotation was quick. But I am confident of doing better at the Olympics."
Though she has been part of the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, Seema hardly requested any funding since last year. "I am getting the stipend. The rest of my expenditure, including training, was being funded by whatever money I have."
Submitting logistical records and proposals was a bit too much and she thought it would be better without it. "Since last year, apart from the stipend (Rs 50,000) I had not asked for anything. I wanted to train with a free mind. Also the coronavirus complicated matters. I had to take care of myself all alone in an alien land. Mentally it was very tough."
In fact, she says she had spent more than Rs 1 lakh to come back to India and compete at the Fed Cup meet in March, the meet in Minsk as well as the Inter-State meet. "Even for my checkup in Mumbai I have been paying from my own pocket," she said.
On whether this could potentially be her last Olympics, she said Paris was a realistic target. "I think if everything is fine, Paris is possible. It will depend on Tokyo also. But next year's Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are there as well. I should be competing next year and I think Paris should not be a problem."
During the recent meet in Patiala, she had demanded a hyperandrogenism test on a fellow competitor. She was candid when she spoke on the issue.
"I know about discus and I can tell who is doing well and how. I don't want to take names. All I wanted was to raise an issue. If there is a rule that one can complain or raise an issue, then why shouldn't we utilise it? I mean throwing such distances will always raise eyebrows. In that case, why should anyone spend money on foreign coaches or training? It's a legitimate question. I believe all athletics academies in the country should be monitored by the athletics federation. Whatever money the government is giving there should be accountability. There should be a foreign coach monitoring each of these