It takes a lot to fluster discus thrower Seema Punia. Over the course of a career that's lasted the better part of two decades, the 34-year old has seen plenty of highs and lows. She was the first Indian to win a gold at the Junior World Championships in 2000, then saw her world crashing down following a subsequent dope ban. She made a successful return with a World Junior bronze in 2002, three Commonwealth Games medals, an Asian Games gold and even a couple of Olympic Games.
But despite all that experience, Punia was unnerved ahead of the start of the Federation Cup in Patiala. It wasn't the fact that the competition would serve as a one-shot chance of qualifying for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
What troubled her was the state of a two kilo disc of battered carbon fiber and pocked steel. All discus throwers are permitted to carry the standard equipment of their choosing for a competition. The discus, bought in 2012, has been by Punia's side through some of her career's greatest moments. She had used it to win silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and gold at the Asian Games the same year. She has flung the beat-up instrument at two Olympic Stadiums too.
The discus is older now. The lettering of the brand name Nordica is faded now. Six years, tens of thousands of 90kmph releases and hard impacts in training and competition have taken their toll. It's been cracked and patched up with epoxy glue multiple times. Punia could get a new discus but can't bear to part with the piece she currently uses. "Every discus thrower prefers to use just their own discus. The way it sits in your hand feels exactly right. It is the same as a cricketer playing with their favourite bat," she explains.
The only difference being that few bats last as long as Punia has willed her discus to. "Every time it cracked, I would open up the discus and stick the pieces together," she says. Ahead of the Federation Cup though, the discus took a beating too far. "It completely split. I stuck it together once again but I was not sure how long it would last," she says.
As it turns out, the discus lasted just fine, at least this time. Punia matched the qualifying standard of 59m with an effort of 59.12m on her fourth attempt. On her final throw, she powered the discus to meet record of 61.05m, easily Punia's best throw in the past two years.
The throw has given Punia a fresh jolt of confidence in her abilities. At 34, she knows the clock is ticking down on her own career too. Injuries are far more frequent albeit unpredictable than they once were. She has battled a shoulder injury intermittently since 2014 and also had to train through the pain of kidney stones last year. "Injuries are something I have to deal with now. It is difficult to train continuously right now," she says.
Punia doesn't always know why she does it. She's no longer part of the Target Olympic Podium scheme. When she was, she complained about the delay in disbursement of funds. Now training in the USA and Russia, she says she funds her own way with the prize money she received for her Commonwealth silver and Asian Games gold in 2014.
"I've never had a fascination for big cars. I drive a second hand Maruti Swift. Neither do I have any vices. The only thing that I am addicted to is competing in the discus throw. I just love competing," she says.
Punia says she doesn't really care about arguing for funds and claiming what she feels she is worth. "It doesn't matter anymore. When I talk to athletes who were competing alongside me in the juniors, they think I am crazy because I haven't saved anything for myself. Whatever I have got, I have put back into the sport." The latest she expects will be the Rs. 30,000 or so that she will pay to buy a new discus.
Competing, she says, is an itch she needs to scratch. At the Commonwealth Games, she will find it hard to upgrade her silver to that elusive gold. Her season's best is nearly 5m off Commonwealth leader Dani Stevens, who has a best of 66.02m this year. Punia will give it a shot though, even if it will be with a new piece of equipment.
"I have many memories with this discus. But it's time to retire it now. I lost my first discus with which I won the World junior medals but I plan to mount it on my wall," she says.
"But I will create some fresh ones with my new discus too.".