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On the road to discovery

Fighting odds and dope taint, Seema Antil Punia wants to silence critics, writes Saurabh Duggal. Know Seema

india Updated: Jul 06, 2012 11:05 IST
Saurabh Duggal

The aim was to get admission in a local English-medium school. And the path she chose was sports. Due to family restrictions, the aim couldn't be fulfilled, but the country got one of its best discus throwers.

"At the start, I had no idea about representing the country or achieving excellence in sport…I didn't even know what discus throw was all about. I started going to the stadium with the aim of getting enrolled in the Sports Authority of India's scheme. For me, it meant I would get free diet and a sports kit, and above all, a chance to cherish my childhood dream of studying in an English-medium school," says 28-year-old Seema Antil Punia.

"I cleared the SAI test and was selected for their residential scheme, located at Shivalik Public School in Chandigarh. But my father objected to the idea of staying away, all alone. Eventually, I missed the opportunity. But, I was bitten by the sports bug and continued going to the local stadium in Sonepat," she adds.

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"Initially, I trained in all athletics events. But in 1998, a year after I joined the sports curriculum in Sonepat, discus thrower Pawan Sangwan spotted me and advised me to try my hand at discus throw.

"I used to watch Pawan bhai practice and out of curiosity asked him about the 'plate' event. He laughed but later explained to me the nuances of the sport. He advised me that I had the height and the build to be a thrower. From that day, discus has become an integral part of my life," says Seema. "In my very first attempt, I threw 25 metres, which is good for a beginner, and a year later (1999), I was selected in the national camp," she adds. Seema competed in her first Nationals (Lucknow 1999) and her throw of 47 metres saw her finish eighth.

By chance
It was by chance that Seema was included in the national camp. "An Athletic Federation of India official noticed my height and asked if I wanted to be included in the camp. I said yes. Soon after the Nationals, I went to NIS, Patiala, which has been my home since," says Seema.

But 'parental control' kept coming in the way of the tall thrower. When Seema was offered the job of havaldar in the CRPF, her father tried to dissuade her. "He had a feudal mindset. But my seniors said the job would do a lot of good to my sporting career, so I went against my family's wishes," recalls Seema.

Seema then became the country's first athlete to win a World championship medal - a bronze in the 2002 junior Worlds. "Usain Bolt was with me at Worlds in Jamaica. He won silver in 200m and I clinched bronze in discus," says Seema proudly.

Joy short-lived
Within a year of joining the national camp, Seema became the toast of the nation when she won the junior World title in Chile (2000). But her celebrations were short-lived. She lost her gold after failing the dope test. "While I was on my way to Chile, I had a shivering feeling and took Coldarin, not knowing it had a prohibited salt. I lost my medal but the world body let me off with a reprimand as I was a juvenile," says Seema.

Dope controversy returned to haunt her before the 2006 Doha Asian Games, when she was dropped from the team at the eleventh hour. "There was some technical error. Had I been found positive, why wasn't I banned? If I perform, critics say I am on dope, and if I don't, they say I am not doping. What is this? I am on WADA's (World Anti-Doping Agency) whereabouts list and have given a number of samples in the last couple of years. I have not failed a single test. You should believe a sportsperson and respect him or her, only then will you get outstanding results," says Seema, who will be competing in her second Olympics. She finished 14th in Athens in 2004.

In the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Seema became a sporting icon when her silver-medal feat was the only individual medal in athletics there. But her performance dipped after that and she failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. "That was the worst phase of my career and I thought of quitting. I requested chief coach, Bahadur Singh, who took me under his wings.

Fighter to the core
Be it fighting the family or the system for her rights, Seema has never compromised. Despite having the credentials, she was not selected for the post of sub-inspector in Haryana Police. She filed a petition in court and won. Today she proudly says that not only has she got her seniority but her dues with retrospective effect.

Seema always had the desire to train under Tony Ciarelli, but financial problems always came in the way. But thanks to Mittal Champions Trust she's had her wish fulfilled, and since September she's been training under him in the US.

Come August 3, Seema will be on the biggest sporting stage again. And this time, she hopes her competition will not fizzle out like in Athens.