New Delhi, March 27: Boxer Pooja Rani became the first Indian to secure the Tokyo Olympics 2020 quota in the 75 kg category during the Asia/Oceania Qualifying Tournament in Amman (Jordan) earlier this month. The 29-year-old boxer had to settle for a bronze in the championship after losing to China's Li Quiang but the experience she had in Amman will have a major impact on her in the days to come.
After her return from Jordan, the boxer has been on a 14-day self-quarantine at her home in Bhiwani, Haryana due to the coronavirus outbreak. The quarantine came as a much-needed respite for the boxer who was away from home for quite some time but just when she started shifting her focus on the Tokyo Olympics, the quadrennial event was deferred for another year due to the deadly pandemic, which has claimed more than 19,000 lives worldwide.
The Haryana-based boxer has always been identified as a potential boxer, but her prospects of winning big tournaments have always faced obstacles when it came to optimising her fitness and mental abilities. Pooja is supported for the last eight years by Pune based sports NGO, Lakshya and the association helped her raise the bar. She burnt her hand while firing crackers during Diwali in 2016 and had to stay away from the ring for almost a year. Lakshya took care of her rehab and also provided her with a physio.
Last year she changed her weight category from 81kg to 75kg. The transition has been challenging but Pooja overcame and secured the Olympic quota and now looks to emulate MC Mary Kom, the first and only female boxer to win an Olympic medal for India. With Olympics postponed, the boxer is keeping herself busy by playing indoor games with her niece and also aims to polish her skills once things get back to normal.
Here are the excerpts from the telephonic conversation with Pooja Rani:
MyKhel: The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for another year due to coronavirus pandemic. What are your thoughts on this development? Is this good or bad for you?
Pooja Rani: Certainly, the postponement of the Olympic games for another year is disappointing. One year is a long time and we are prepared to give our best next year as well but we have been waiting for the quadrennial event for the past four years and the wait has got just longer. But nothing is more precious than human life and I completely back the decision of the stakeholders to shift the games.
MK: Your self-quarantine period is about to end. What is your routine during the quarantine and how different it is from your normal daily life?
PR: I had already thought of giving myself complete rest after returning from Olympic qualifiers because I have been training a lot for this tournament for quite some time and I hardly got any rest. So, when we landed and were asked to self-quarantine it was like a welcome move as all I wanted to rest. So it gave me one more reason to stay indoors and spend time with my family. My quarantine ends on 27th March but the 21-day-long lockdown has already been announced by the government so I'll spend the rest of the days with my family.
MK: What all do you do for timepass these days?
PR: Well, I have my nephew and niece with me so during the free time I play ludo with them. Every couple of hours they'll be after me to play ludo so I sit down with them. I don't know how to dance but every evening my niece gives me a dance lesson.
MK: You started training this week. Which area are you focussing at, is it weight practice or are you working on improving your strength and stamina?
PR: I was planning to do some high-intensity training keeping Olympic in mind but the postponement of Olympic games puts everything on the backseat now and I will have to re-strategise now. As of now, I am doing yoga and working on improving my strength and stamina.
MK: The performance of our boxers has been impressive in the last couple of years. You and several other boxers did well in the Olympic qualifiers as we'll be seeing record nine pugilists in the showpiece event in Tokyo. We also heard that in the sparring session with the Chinese boxers ahead of World Championships and you guys did exceedingly well there. So how do you see the increase in the confidence level of Indian boxers?
PR: Look, after the reinstatement of the Boxing Federation of India by AIBA, has helped a lot. We've participated in various camps in different countries which gave us a lot of exposure. We get to play seven to eight international tournaments in a year now and that helps us learn and improve. The sparring session with the Chinese boxers was very fruitful for us because they are a quality boxing side and that too helped us a lot. Whatever good you are witnessing in Indian boxing is because of that as the boxers have gained in a lot of confidence in the last couple of years. Now that we have another year for the Olympics, we'll prepare harder and I am confident of putting up an impressive show in Tokyo next year.
MK: It's been almost a year since you shifted from 81 kg to 75 kg category. Apart from the adjustments, what are the areas where you still need to improve for the Olympics? Any particular skills you are planning to add in your repertoire during this gap?
PR: During the sparring bout against the Chinese boxers the coaches asked me to remain calm and neither attack nor counter her. They told me to penetrate and go on the offensive to get the points only when my opponent attacks me. I couldn't do much during my bout back then, so I will be working on this particular tactic in the coming days because there are a lot of boxers who will have the advantage of height on me and that is where I need to improve.
MK: Who according to you is going to be your toughest challengers because a lot of boxers have entered this weight category by increasing and/or decreasing the weight?
PR: Well, there are some very good Chinese boxers in this category and then there are boxers from the Netherlands, Wales and the USA. China's Li Qian - who defeated her in the Asian Championships semis, Netherlands' Nouchka Fontijn and Walesh boxer Lauren Price are going to be tough opponents for me.
MK: What are the tips from your mental strength and conditioning coach Dr Swaroop Savanur to keep yourself mentally fit these days?
PR: I got very stressed up before the start of the Asian Championships. I couldn't sleep thinking about my upcoming bouts and was going through tough times but Dr Swaroop from Lakshya came to Delhi and counselled me. He told me to put my phones aside after 10 pm and not touch it even if I couldn't sleep. He also advised me to meditate and chant the name of whichever God I believe in. So I started chanting 'Om Namah Shivay' during my idle time and that has helped calm my mind.
He has also advised me to utilise this break by watching the bouts of the boxers who have either qualified or are yet to qualify in my weight category and analyse their strengths and weaknesses so that I am better prepared when I face them in the ring during the future exposure tours.