Just before his final clean and jerk attempt, Deepak Lather sat in the warm-up area with a bright blue towel around his head, eyes closed like a monk on a meditative trip and lips moving in prayer. In the minutes that followed, it seemed they had gone unanswered.
The baby-faced lifter from Shadipur, a farming village in Haryana, all of 18, got into a deadlift position, firmed his fingers around the metal with a shoulder-width grip and dropped his hips to a squat. Driving against the floor, he lifted the barbell to a rack position, face flushed and knees slightly wobbly. He didn't hold up well enough to be able to punch his elbows into a locked position and get the bar overhead. Throwing the 162-kg metal to the ground with a dull, heavy thud, the high school student cursed himself under his breath for botching up his Games debut, walking off the stage.
He eventually won bronze with a total effort of 295 kgs in the 69 kg category. "I told myself it is over. I knew I didn't stand a chance anymore."
With his second successful clean and jerk attempt of 159 kg, Deepak had touched his personal best of 295 kgs but Sri Lanka's Indika C Dissanayake also managed a good lift of 160 kg in his first attempt to stay ahead. So did Welshman Gareth Evans. Hope flickered for Deepak when Malaysia's Muhammad Erry Hidayat faltered in his 165-kg final attempt. But Samoa's Vaipava Ioane - who chose an ambitious 175 kg lift for his second attempt - was still in the mix.
"I was praying, praying hard for him (Ioane) to drop the barbell," Deepak says, laughing like a kid who's just pulled off a prank, "I know it's not the right thing to do. I was also thinking to myself why he picked such a high weight. When he dropped it, something inside me erupted with joy, but I tried not to show it. I told myself that he has one more attempt to go. Woh bhi bhagwaan gira de bas (Just hope God gets him to drop even in the last attempt)"
Deepak's reputation for being a good snatcher also factored in the gold-medalist Evans' plans. "We were aware that the Indian (Deepak) is a good snatcher' so we planned our lifts keeping that in mind as well.
Deepak's snatch lifts though didn't quite live up to the billing. "I think I should have done better. My knee couldn't take the load and had begun to hurt. It turned out to be a loss." Against his personal best of 138 kg in snatch, he managed only 136 kg on Thursday.
"Luck was on my side today. I need to work on wherever I went wrong today. There's still the Asian Games, Olympics, World Championships, I need to get better. I have worked on the fields with my father and never thought I could get here. Ab toh aage focus karna hai, celebrate toh 2020 ko jaake hi karenge," (Now I need to focus, celebrations can wait till 2020) he says, and then biting his tongue and tousling his hair with an air of forgetfulness he lifts his medal to his lips, "I was so busy praying, I didn't even have a good look at my medal."
Calling himself a product of the army since he's been training at ASI, Pune, where he was first picked to play the sport in 2010, Deepak, with hair side-swept like a schoolboy, says he hated the first discipline that was chosen for him, diving. Weightlifting was to sneak into his life later. " People from the state of Haryana are cut out for physical sports like wrestling, lifting, boxing. Diving humse na ho payega (We aren't cut out for diving)."
Sprinting up the stairs to make it in time for mandatory dope checks, Deepak is stopped midway by a bunch of elderly Indian men who greet him like a long-lost neighbour, enquire about his family and then get him to pose for photographs. Holding up his medal for the camera, he smiles with disbelief, "Main toh famous ho gaya (I'm now famous)."