A dull odour of pain relievers followed P Gururaja into the room as he held the blue stuffed koala Borobi against his chest. "This is so cute, I love it," he said, smiling like a kid who'd just raided a candy store. The medal hanging by a brown ribbon around his neck was forgotten.
Only minutes ago, the weightlifter had opened India's medal tally at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games with a silver in the 56 kg category, equalling his personal best of 249 kg.
An hour later he was still trying to get through to his father in India to break the news. Growing up in Kundapur village in coastal Karnataka, Gururaja loathed academics, much to his father's chagrin. "I couldn't stand the sight of books," he said. "But I think I haven't fared too badly in life. My father will be very happy to hear this."
After having lifted 111 kg in snatch, Gururaja's first two attempts in clean and jerk were called unsuccessful. It meant he was left with just one last chance to make his Commonwealth Games debut memorable. Pacing the warm-up hall, Gururaja took quick gulps of water with national coach Vijay Sharma passing on his final instructions. Walking up to the rubberized platform in a blue singlet with quick strides, Gururaja dipped his hands into the bright-green chalk holder, measured up the barbell before gripping it with white fingers. Picking up the barbell from the floor, he placed it on his shoulders in one motion and, a few deep breaths later, lifted it in an overhead position with his legs in a lunging stance. A smile played at the corners of his mouth. He knew a medal was his to take home.
"Just as I was walking out for my final lift, my coach told me that this would be the lift of my life and I would do it," Gururaja said. "I had so many things rushing through my mind when I went on to the stage. Ghar ka yaad aa gaya, desh ka yaad aa gaya (I was reminded of my home, my country). I thought how a medal might change my family's life back home. We're a big family -- we're six brothers -- and my father is a truck driver. It's not easy, you know, to sustain yourself in a sport."
When a local journalist asked whether he was carrying any injuries, Gururaja ran his right index finger from his shoulders to his knees. "Everything," he said with a smile, balancing on his toes nervously and apologizing for his poor English.
Despite the medal, Gururaja insisted it wasn't his best performance. "I knew I would do well in clean and jerk but I was just not able to perform well enough today," he said. "I don't know why the second lift was given 'no lift'. I tried going through video replays but I just couldn't understand. It could be because my arm moved slightly. I would have gone even higher had that lift gone well. In the snatch, one lift I couldn't complete because my back felt loose. I think not having a physio beside me also affected my performance."
The accreditation of the lifters' physio, Aakrant Saxena, doesn't allow him access to the Games Village and the warm-up hall at the competition venue. "He was guiding me how to go about recovery from outside since he couldn't get in," said Gururaja. "But you know it's tough for us to do the taping and everything else ourselves."
Weightlifting was never part of Gururaja's original plan. It was wrestling. He started looking for a coach to train him once he enrolled in college. "I had watched Sushil Kumar win the Olympic medal in Beijing and that filled me with this desire to start taking wrestling lessons."
But coach Rajendra Prasad, whom he was to run into later, picked a different path for him. "He suggested I would be more suitable for weightlifting," Gururaja said. "I struggled to lift the barbell the first few months. I just didn't know how to do it. I was training in 42 kg in wrestling when I moved to weightlifting and everything that I had to lift was too heavy for me." Between wrestling and weightlifting, he also tried his hand at powerlifting.
After a path was chosen for him, Gururaja stuck to it. He finished among the medals at the Commonwealth Championships in 2016 and 2017, winning a gold and bronze, respectively. "Both those times, like today, it was the three of us [Malyasia's Muhammad Izhar Ahmed, Sri Lanka's Chaturanga Lakmal and myself] on the podium. That's funny."
Ahmed bettered compatriot Hamizan Amirul Ibrahim's snatch record of 110 kg and also broke the overall Games record -- which also belonged to Ibrahim -- on his way to gold.
His medal worries lifted, Gururaja anxiously looked toward the competition hall, tapping his wrist. "Mirabai has her bout in some time," he said. "I think she will get both a gold and record."
In a few hours, his words were to turn prophetic.