Behind Deepak’s gold at Birmingham, a heartbreak a year ago, tribute to mother

On August 5, 2021, Deepak Punia suffered a heartbreak when the wrestler from Haryana lost the bronze medal bout against San Marino’s Myles Nazem Amine in the 86 kg category at Tokyo Olympics. It was a medal that Punia desperately wanted to win — for his country and for his mother whose dream it was to see her son on the podium at the Olympics and who had died a year ago.

A year later to the date, the 23-year-old paid tribute to his mother as he finished on top of the podium at the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Birmingham bagging the gold medal with a win over Pakistan’s Muhammad Inam. There were no big moves but Punia, with better stamina, outlasted Inam 3-0, winning his first point from a push out, second on passivity of the Pakistani before completing the win with another push out point.

Back home at village Chhara in Haryana’s Jhajjar, father Subash Punia, who gave up his dairy business to help his son grow as a wrestler. “We will celebrate until he returns home with the medal,” said Subash. “My wife wanted to see Deepak win an Olympic medal. When the national camp was closed following lockdown in 2020, Deepak spent 18 days with his ailing mother at our village. She lost her life on April 9, 2020. After losing the Olympic bout, she was rejected. But we made sure that he was given a warm welcome when he returned. Win and loss and part of sport and that’s what we wanted him to understand”.

Growing up in the village, Deepak would listen to the stories about his father, uncles and cousins ​​fighting in local dangals. Cousin Sunil Kumar, famous as Sunil Chotiwala for sporting a ponytail, was a national champion. “Deepak would often play with Sunil’s trophies and medals. When he was five, I got him enrolled at the Arya Virendra Akhada in our village, His day would start at 5 am and he would spend most of his day at the akhada like other resident trainees before returning home in the evening. He would take home-made lassi and ghee with him to the akhada,” reminisced Subash.

It was also the time, when Subash would carry milk on his motorcycle to Delhi to sell in the societies. While Deepak would compete in the local dangals, it meant that Subash had to leave the dairy business in 2011 and commit full time to traveling with his son and preparing his diet. “I regularly took loans from my friends and relatives to support his training and would repay when Deepak would win dangals or titles and get cash rewards,” recalled Subash. In 2014, Deepak enrolled at the Chhatrasal Stadium in Delhi under coach Virender Kumar. Within two years, Deepak won his first international medal, a gold, at the World Cadet Championship-2016 in Georgia. In 2018, Deepak bagged a silver at the World Junior Wrestling Championship in Slovakia before ending India’s 18-year-wait for a world junior champion with the title win in the 86-Kg category in the World Junior Wrestling Championship in Estonia.

Virender Kumar remembers that during initial days of training, Deepak would often slip or catch hold of the opponent’s clothing, like it is done in mud wrestling. “We started training him in the basics of mat wrestling. He took no time in mastering the moves. His feet movement was swift. Scoring points with Kehri Patt or Dohri Patt has become his strong point,” says the 50-year-old, who now runs his own akhada near Singhu border.

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Virender Kumar said Deepak loves to watch the bouts of two-time Olympic and three-time world champion Hassan Yazdini — he had lost to the Iranian in Asian championship — apart from spending time chanting Hanuman Chalisa.

At his home, sisters Manisha Sangwan and Pinki have been managing things and know that once Deepak returns with a medal, he will ask for the dishes that their mother used to cook. “Deepak was very close to our mother. Sometimes, he would get late and our mother would make choorma and aloo paranthas for him. When he returns, we will welcome him with choorma,” said Manisha.

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