Akhil Kumar may not have brought the promised Olympic boxing medal, but his performance would surely inspire others that it is not beyond their reach.
After shooter Abhinav Bindra's historic gold-medal win and Saina Nehwal's courageous run on the badminton court, Akhil has proved that the Indian boxers have come of age.
The nation throbbed with excitement and expectation as the time of Akhil's quarterfinal fight with Moldovan Gojan Vaeceslav neared. But soon there was heartbreak. The Indian lost, unable to pierce his rival's defence.
At Akhil's home in Rohtak, a bustling town in Haryana, there was gloom. His father, a police constable, mother and elder brother have found themselves in the spotlight after Akhil's stunning win over world Champion Sergey Vodopyanov to enter the last eight. But Monday evening, they may have been crestfallen, but they were proud of what the young man achieved in Beijing.
Hordes of mediapersons camped outside the house since morning, anticipating victory and exciting soundbytes from the family. Akhil's loss might have dashed the hopes of many, but at the same time his heroics could act as a tonic for many youngsters to jump into the ring, instead of running to a cricket field.
Akhil's is a story of sweat sacrifice and unflinching determination. He is already a role model for hundreds of children who have taken up the sport in the small township of Bhiwani.
Akhil's first brush with the gloves and the punching bag was at home where his elder brother Shailendra, a talented boxer, introduced him to the sport. It was not merely a sport for Akhil from that day but also a means to fulfill his brother's dream and the only way to reach out to the world.
With a family of five, his father did not have adequate means to allow his son to follow his passion though he never stopped him.
Akhil met his coach Jagdish Singh in Gurgaon way back in 1994 and from then on his dreams started taking shape.
He joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel in Bhiwani where he received his initial training and Jagdish remained the biggest influence in his career.
"I used to tell him (Akhil) that you have the potential to achieve big from the ring, but he never believed me. He used to say I am just trying to motivate him. But he is a gem and he has worked hard throughout," Jagdish told IANS.
The gold wining feat at the Afro Asian Games in 2001 in Hyderabad in the flyweight category came as a big boost for Akhil and boxing in the country.
"From then on children in Bhiwani started looking up to these boxers. It brought them recognition and there were many who took up to boxing during that period," says Akhil's friend and boxer Subodh.
Though Akhil gave a cause for Bhiwani to celebrate, he could not live up to his own high expectations at his debut Olympics in Athens, 2004, when he was thrashed by Frenchman Jerome Thomas. But Akhil is not the one to give up easily and that loss made him more focused and determined.
He made up for the Athens disappointment winning the gold medal at the Commonwealth Championships in Glasgow the next year.
"Akhil's biggest quality is his perseverance and dedication. He was very upset after losing in the Athens Olympics and for four years he followed a strict regimen. During this time he has stayed away from his family for long durations, meeting them for just a week or so. He is an example for other sportspersons to follow," says Jagdish.
"Boxing is a sport where you need tremendous physical stamina and it is to Akhil's credit that he has been able to maintain that standard."
At the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Akhil outpunched Louis Richard Bruno Julie of Mauritius in the 54kg bantamweight category to win India's second ever boxing gold in the mega-event, after Ali Qamar's light-flyweight gold at the 2002 Manchester Games.
His preparations for Beijing seemed to be going in the right track until a wrist injury threatened to end Akhil's career prematurely. He was out of the ring for the entire 2007 when he went for two surgeries and had it not been for the Mittal Champion Trust, India would have lost the champion boxer.
"It was the toughest period for Akhil. The Mittal Champion Trust came to his help and picked up the tabs of his surgeries. He showed extraordinary courage to make a comeback," says Jagdish.
He took a year to recover and regain the punch. And Akhil made a stunning return this February, when he beat the Athens Olympics silver medallist Worapoj Petchkoom of Thailand to win the gold medal at the inaugural Asian Olympic qualifying tournament in Bangkok, besides securing a quota place for the Olympics.