Deepak Punia eyes Olympic glory to move past Nur-Sultan final disappointment
“I have to win Olympic medal at any cost,” 20-year-old Deepak Punia says emphatically when asked how important the upcoming Tokyo Olympics are to him. The Haryana-born Indian wrestler had a fantastic 2019, in which he became the first Indian wrestler after 18 years to win a gold medal in Junior World Wrestling Championships. He then went on to claim a silver at the Senior World Wrestling Championships in the same year. To cap off a breakthrough year, Deepak was honoured with the “Junior Freestyle Wrestler of the Year” award by United World Wrestling (UWW) in December. But now, his eyes are set on a lone target - Olympics 2020.
“The only thing that matters to me right now is the Tokyo Olympics... 100 percent. I have given my all to make it through. I will do whatever is required to win a medal in Tokyo,” he tells Hindustan Times in an exclusive telephonic interview.
Deepak earned his Tokyo berth after defeating Colombia’s Carlos Izquierdo 7-6 to enter the 86 kg semi-finals at World Wrestling Championships in Nur-Sultan last year. Punia did not have to break a sweat in dispatching Switzerland’s Stefan Reichmuth during the semifinal stage as he assured himself of a silver medal. But a knee injury suffered in the semis resulted in him being ruled out of the final, and settling for a second prize.
“Not being able to compete was really upsetting. I fought against really tough competitors to reach the final. Then, I had to pull out. This is wrestling, it’s a sport. Anything could have happened on the day. I could have won, I could have lost,” he says. Considering the bout was against the reigning 86kg Olympic champion Hassan Yazdani of Iran, Deepak rues that he missed out on the chance to learn from competing against one of the best in the business.
“I would have learned something. He is also an Olympic champion, so it would have been a good experience to compete. But then, there was the risk of aggravating my injury,” he says.
After the final, Deepak took a break for four months to heal himself. He returned to the mat at the Rome Ranking Series last month, where he was knocked out in the first round. But despite the result, Deepak is motivated for the upcoming Asian Wrestling Championships which is set to begin next week in New Delhi. Injuries are no longer a concern for him. “My knee is healed and I have trained hard. Winning medals in major competitions last year has given increased my confidence as well,” he says.
Another major boost to Deepak has been the appointment of the 2008 Olympic Silver medalist from Belarus, Murad Gaidarov, as his coach. The WFI made the announcement in October 2019, and Deepak is eager to learn from him. “I trained alongside him in Russia. I am learning a lot from him. I had some really good sessions. He will come to India on 16th, so I am eager to learn more,” he says.
“Bataane ko to koi bhi bata denge ki ye kami hai, ye karna hai. But things do not happen just like that. I have to keep up the hard work to show improvements that I know I still need to make,” he adds.
With just a few days left for the international tournament to begin, Deepak is engaged in extensive training at Chhatrasal Akhada in New Delhi, which starts at 4:30 am in the morning. He gives a detailed description of his schedule. “I go for sprinting. Then I come to the mat and perform wrestling techniques. Dand maarte hain, Mudgar karte hain, Rassi kheech... mehnat chalti hai fir poori.”
“I return to camp for lunch and take a nap around 12:30-1:00 PM. Then, we restart our training in the evening around 3:30-4:00 PM. Twice or thrice in a week, we play practice matches, and also indulge in open-weight training, where we train alongside wrestlers from other weight divisions,” he says.
On the mat, Deepak, who hails from Chhara village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district, is an aggressive competitor and likes to go for the attack against his opponents. His flexibility and swiftness are his biggest strengths. But off the field, he is calm, quiet and does not like to speak much. “I don’t think that I have to be a different person off the mat. I am not very outspoken and like to remain quiet. My focus remains on my matches, and I keep my eyes on the wrestlers I am about to compete. I watch videos of their bouts, in my free time,” he says.
With Tokyo in mind, Deepak is keeping an eye on the upcoming tournaments this year, which he believes will shape him up for the big challenge.
“I will continue to participate in a few more tournaments in the coming months, which I believe will help me on the road to Tokyo. I have only one mission this year - to become an Olympic medallist,” he signs off.