India is a cricket crazy nation where all other sports appear bland. Not anymore. Bajrang Punia is the talk of the town after being ranked World No. 1 in freestyle Wrestling in the 65 Kg category. With 96 points Punia has a massive 30-point lead over the second placed wrestler from Cuba. In a free-wheeling chat, the soft-spoken grappler talks how the mind-set change has turned the country into a wrestling powerhouse
Q. First of all, congratulations for becoming the No. 1 wrestler in 65 Kg category. How does it feel to be at the top?
Ans: Bahut accha lag raha hai (Feeling great). I cannot express this feeling in words. Every player dreams about this, and it’s like a dream come true for me. I want to thank the Almighty for his blessings. I also want to thank the Wrestling Federation the way they support players. This achievement is not mine alone, this is a national achievement. This achievement will motivate the upcoming talents in wrestling.
Q. In recent years, Indian wrestling has been achieving new heights. What do you think is the reason?
Ans: I agree with you. It’s a combined effort of all the players, and that’s why we are now getting results. When Sushil Kumar won bronze in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it worked as the changing moment for all the wrestlers in India. When it comes to wrestling in India, now the first names that hit your head is Sushil bhai (Sushil Kumar) and Yogeshwar bhai (Yogeshwar Dutt). We are fortunate to have them around us. They always keep us motivating and tell us we can beat anyone. Their consistent performance motivates us that we can also perform well and win medals. We are just following their footprints.
Q. If we talk about ranking, in men’s category you are the only Indian in top ten while in women’s category there are five Indian wrestlers. How do you see the growing interest of girls in wrestling?
Ans: The reason behind the rise of women’s wrestling is a change in thought. Pehle ladkiyon ko wrestling nahi Karne dete the, ise mardo ka khel maana jaata tha (Earlier girls were not allowed to participate in wrestling, it was considered to be men’s game), but things have changed now. Especially after Sakshi Malik and Phogat sisters brought medals for the country. Their performance encouraged many girls to take up wrestling. The movie ‘Dangal’ also helped in breaking this barrier.
Q. Haryana is considered as the land of wrestlers now. Primarily it was only men who were into wrestling, but now woman wrestlers are coming out in large number.
Ans: Haryana ki mitti me hi jaadu hai (There is a magic in soil of Haryana). And, then it is the sports policy of Haryana that motivates both men and women to choose sports as a career. Earlier there was no money in sports except cricket, but now the perception and rewards both have changed with the success of wrestlers. Earlier there was no respect for pehelwans (wrestlers), people thought that pehelwan to sirf laadai jhagde ke lie hote hai (wrestlers indulge only in petty fights), but things have changed now, especially after Sushil Kumar won bronze in the Beijing Olympics and gold at the 2010 World Championship. Later India has built a reputation of being a wrestling power when Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt bagged silver and bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. Now the wrestlers receive respect wherever they go.
Q. You made your international debut at the Asian Wrestling Championship, 2013 in New Delhi. You were not in the original Indian squad but included at the last hour. How do you see this incident?
Ans: It was a life-changing moment for me. I have fond memories of that tournament as it was my international debut in the senior category. I was preparing myself for the Junior Championship. Then Yogeshwar bhai had to pull out due to an injury and then I gave the trial and got selected. He told me to give my best and ensure his absence was not felt. His belief and my hard work helped me to bag bronze medal in that tournament. After that, I haven’t played at the junior level for almost two years. From 2014, Yogeshwar bhai started playing in the 65Kg category, and I got the chance to play continuously in 61 Kg category, and because of change in category I got an opportunity to represent India in 61 Kg freestyle wrestling in Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
Q. Whom do you consider as your guiding force?
Ans: Yogeshwar bhai is my role model. Mai unhi ko dekhkar bada hua hoon aur hamesha se yehi chaha ki mai unke jaisa pahalwaan banoo (I grew up seeing Yogeshwar bhai and always wanted to be a wrestler like him). Even I have been training with him for the last ten years. I must say that it is Yogeshwar bhai whose inputs always helped me besides all the guidance from coaches.
Q. If we talk about training methods, do you think that Indian wrestling is different from other countries?
Ans: Yes, we have a different style of training. In the beginning we train ourselves on mud floors, but players of other nations train on mat from the beginning. They don’t train as hard as we do. They spend a lot of time in gym and on mat but we spend our time in Akhara (wrestling arena), doing utthak baithak (sit-ups) and desi style of exercises.
Q. At what age, you discovered your interest in wrestling?
Ans: I was seven when I made up my mind to choose wrestling. My village Khudan (a village in Jhajjar district of Haryana) is a wrestling hub. I still remember Narendra Pehelwan ji, a Bharat Kesari awardee who took me to Chhatrasal Stadium. There I met Yogendra bhai and from there wrestling became my life. Because of Narendra ji, there was an atmosphere of wrestling in the village. I started my wrestling with him.
Q. How do you see the role of family and society in your success?
Ans: It is family and society that plays a vital role in nurturing you. If the people around you are confident, they keep motivating you till the time you meet your goals.
Q. How do you see the role of present government in sports?
Ans: Things have changed after Narendra Modi government came to power. When a Prime Minister of the country wishes you personally before big tournaments, it is a big morale booster. For a sportsperson, it is recognition and respect matter the most.
Q. What is your next target?
Ans: My priority is to perform well in every tournament. But one thing upsets me most that though we have silver and bronze medals in wrestling in the Olympics, we still have not been able to win a gold medal. So my next target is to win gold in the Tokyo Olympics and bring laurels for India.