Bajrang Punia bears the knowledge of having cracked every listicle on Indian medal hopefuls for his debut Games in Tokyo lightly. He doesn't overreach in making promises. The 65kg category that he wrestles in is a remarkably competitive one, he offers in diffidence.
There's truth to the statement. Barely a fortnight ago, the 26-year-old lost his gold-medal bout to Japan's Takuto Otoguro, one of the best in his weight class, at the Asian Championships in New Delhi. He'd been defeated in similar humbling fashion by Otoguro at the 2018 World Championships final as well.
"I just couldn't give my 100 per cent," says Bajrang, attributing it partly to having to convalesce from a bout of typhoid and the pressure of a home crowd.
Bajrang's famed machine-like endless reserves of stamina -- that he often pins to his advantage in the dying minutes of bouts, when his opponents are washed up -- is one that is high on risk and rich in rewards. It's a habit that has Bajrang teetering on the edge in bouts on many occasions and one that his coach Shako Bentinidis doesn't want him to punt on at a supremely high-stakes event like the Olympics. During the 2019 World Championship bronze-medal bout against Mongolia's Tumur Ochir, Bajrang rallied from 0-6 down to win the playoff 8-7. At other times, he hasn't been so lucky. In the 2018 edition of the competition, against Otoguro in the final, Bajrang conceded five points in the first 30 seconds of the bout and never found his way back.
The chink in his leg defence, one that he has faulted in the past on not being able to trade his early mud-wrestling stance to one that requires him to lean forward on the mat, is one that he claims to be gaining grip over.
"Pehle se kaafi improve hua hai (There's a lot of improvement)," says Bajrang. "In the final [at the Asian Championships] also, I didn't concede too many points through it. I have been working with my coach and support staff specifically in this area. I've also had the habit of conceding crucial points early and then trying to recover them later in the contest. At the Asian Championships I could see I've made progress in this aspect, and took the lead in the first three bouts. The more I compete, the more experience I'll gain. My category [65kg] is a tough one and there 12-13 strong names. There are a couple of tournaments before the Olympics, so I will be working on these weaknesses, make sure I don't repeat my mistakes and try to improve both my attack and defence. Olympics jaise mauke baar-baar nahi milte [Olympics is not an opportunity that you always get]."
"The more I compete, the more experience I will gain. My category [65kg] is a tough one and there 12-13 strong names. There are a couple of tournaments before the Olympics, so I will be working on these weaknesses." Bajrang Punia
Qualifying early for the Olympics (precisely in September 2019) with a quarterfinal win at the World Championships has saved Bajrang the last-minute melee, chaos and tournament cancellations worldwide that have followed the coronavirus outbreak. The Asian Olympic qualifiers scheduled to be held in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan between March 27 and 29 have been the latest wrestling event to be hit and stands postponed indefinitely.
The virus has thrown in a measure of ambiguity into Bajrang's overseas training plans in the run-up to the Games. He's likely to have an itinerary firmed up only after a Target Olympic Podium meeting in New Delhi which will look into the countries that could be high-risk travel options and draw up ones that offer a safer alternative.
"The benefit of qualifying early is that your mind is freed up and fresh," says Bajrang. "At this point, all of us are fighting doubts about travel and competition, and for those who are yet to qualify, it's a lot worse. It makes more sense to train abroad because of the weather, food and quality of sparring partners. India mein chahe jitni bhi achi quality dhoond lo, aapko milaavati zyada milega (In India, no matter how good the quality of products are, chances of adulteration are usually high). These little things matter a lot to athletes."
"Before Rio, there were no questions directed to me no matter how many bouts I lost. But that medal gave me fame, recognition, changed my life and also brought questions with every performance." Sakshi Malik
Among his fellow Indian wrestlers, one high-profile name who's now left with a slim chance to make it to Tokyo is Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik in the 62kg event. Both Bajrang and Sakshi, who are supported by JSW Sport, were in Bengaluru on Monday as part of the organisation's high-performance facility Inspire Institute of Sport's new partnership with global dietary supplement maker Herbalife.
Sakshi has been knackered down by two losses in as many months to 18-year-old and two-time world cadet champion Sonam Malik, at the Wrestling Federation of India trials conducted ahead of the Rome Ranking Series at the start of the season and the Asian Championships last month. "I lost the trials because of lack of confidence," says Sakshi. "Thodi-bahut ghabrahat bhi thi [I was tense too]. But that's how it is. Our body doesn't hold up always. Qualification now looks difficult par maine ummeed nahi chhodi hai (but I haven't lost hope). Before Rio, there were no questions directed to me no matter how many bouts I lost. But that medal gave me fame, recognition, changed my life and also brought questions with every performance. I'm happy that people look at me now with expectation."
In many ways, Bajrang and Sakshi represent two ends of the wrestling story -- one brimming with hope and a possible Olympic medal on debut, and the other who has lived the life of an Olympic medallist for four years and is struggling to summon the gumption for a second shot.