Vinayak Padmadeo & Karam Prakash
our years down the drain, four years of blood, sweat, tears, pain and hard work may be wasted — that’s the horrible prospect that confronts Indian athletes preparing for the Olympics… Yet, they must retain hope as well as their peak physical and mental health, train hard in isolation, away from family and friends, confined to the safe spaces of their training centres, with contagion in the air.
Anxiety, nervousness and excitement sum up the mental state of the Indian athletes as they seek to recapture the form that made some of them favourites for the podium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, now postponed to 2021.
When Covid-19 forced the country to shut down, training for the Tokyo-bound sportspersons came to a standstill and many athletes got stuck, some at home, some in centres. After the restrictions were lifted, they resumed training with strict protocols in place. Many found it hard to come to terms with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). For a select few, like rifle shooter Divyansh Singh Panwar and wrestler Vinesh Phogat, reality hit home hard as the virus paid them a visit.
Vinesh, the only Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo Games and a hot favourite for a medal, contracted Covid in August-end, just two days prior to being conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. The next two months were chaotic, at best.
After coming out of quarantine, she resumed training but had to discontinue after suffering post-Covid complications. “I developed a dry cough and I would tire easily. On doctor’s advice, I had to completely stop training for almost a month,” Vinesh said.
“I had maintained my fitness levels during the lockdown, but this setback affected it. After a few weeks, I started running on the treadmill and cycling to try to get my body acclimatised again. Over the last six weeks, my training is back to full scale,” added the 2019 World Championships bronze medallist.
Having recovered, Vinesh has decided not to join the national camp in Lucknow. “I did not want to join the camp as I was worried about contracting the virus again,” she explained. “Also, the confined environment would have affected me mentally as we would not be allowed to move freely. It would have felt like jail.”
She has also decided to skip the Individual World Cup in Belgrade that started on Saturday. “There was no point participating underprepared,” she said. “Besides, my coach (Woller Akos) told me that as many of the top teams have withdrawn, I, too, should stay back and build on my fitness.” She plans to hit the road running at the Rome Ranking Series in January 2021 — the same tournament where she last fought before the pandemic struck.
For Panwar, things haven’t been this extreme, though he’s uneasy at having to end the year without having participated in any competition. During the lockdown, the 18-year-old was cooped up for two months in his rented flat in Faridabad’s Charmwood Apartments — where he was routinely spotted on his balcony, practising in full shooting gear.
After the lockdown ended, Panwar, the current world No.1 in air rifle, moved to Jaipur to train at his home range. Later, in October, the national team assembled for the first time in over six months at the national camp held by the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) for the Olympic Core Group. Things were looking up for Panwar, but not for long. After the Diwali break, when the team underwent Covid testing, he was found positive, though asymptomatic. “The 14-day quarantine did not affect me at all. I watched movies and had plenty of stress-free time with my Labrador pup ‘Klaus’,” said Panwar, now back at training.
However, his hope of participating in international competitions remains distant as the scheduled World Cup season is subject to easing of travel restrictions.
When the lockdown was announced, the men’s and women’s hockey teams got stuck at the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru. Training was discontinued and they were confined to their rooms. The loneliness took its toll and many wanted to return home. Their team captains, Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal, did request for permission for their players to go home — but this was out of the question. It was only in June that they could start training in a phased manner and were also allowed to go home soon after. When they returned in August, the virus struck the men’s team hard — six players, including captain Manpreet, tested positive for Covid and had to be hospitalised.
Post-recovery, they are back to training and trying to keep match-fit. However, the absence of real-time competitive play is worrying coach Graham Reid, as he has to figure out where the team stands in terms of strategy and fitness against other teams. “Only high-quality international competition can provide this. We have, however, tried to provide a high-quality internal competition as much as possible,” Reid said.
The training has been going on as much as possible in the new normal. “This has brought its own mental challenges as the normal unloading and refreshing needs to be done inside the camp,” he said. Rampal, meanwhile, had something to cheer her up as she became the first woman hockey player to be conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India’s top sporting honour.
Missing the rungs to top
The absence of competition has also got shot putter Tajinder Pal Singh Toor anxious, as he is yet to book a berth for the Tokyo Olympics. He’s worried about missing his dream competition due to lack of qualifying tournaments. When the schedule of international events is known, athletes train in such a way as to hit their peak at the biggest events — such as the Olympics, Asian Games or World Championships. “I don’t know when the competition is, so I don’t know when I have to peak,” Toor said. “If any tournament is randomly announced, say next month, I won’t be able to give it my best shot because the body takes time to get into the competition mode.”
Toor also finds it tough to train alone as training for the throw events, which require explosive strength, needs competitive spirit. “You need a competitor of equal standard in training, otherwise there is no motivation to push harder,” Toor said. To overcome this, his coach Mohinder Singh Dhillon has been calling athletes of other disciplines at Toor’s training sessions so as to fire him up.
Learning new mental skills
Toor, who lost his father shortly after winning gold at the 2018 Asian Games, has learnt to cope though. “Being away from family was tough initially. My mom was alone in Moga, and I was concerned about her. But now things are better.”
For discus thrower Navjeet Kaur Dhillon, who won bronze in the 2018 CWG, the restrictions were akin to imprisonment. “We couldn’t step out for months. It took a mental toll on me. I have always lived in an open and free environment. At times, I would lock myself in my room and cry,” Navjeet said. “If you are not stable mentally, you can’t train. You have to stay motivated. It is the most important factor when there is no competition,” said the athlete from Amritsar.
For triple-jumper Arpinder Singh, winner of gold at the 2018 Asian Games, his dream of competing at the Tokyo Games kept him going through the year. “During the complete lockdown, I started weight training at home itself. I had to arrange for weights and create a makeshift training area at home in my small village, Harse Chhina in Amritsar, to maintain strength and fitness,” said Arpinder, who comes from a farming family. “But more than physical fitness, mental health is important as part of holistic fitness,” he added. “I had not given a thought to it earlier, but Covid made me realise that one must take care of one’s mental health. It felt like being in jail.”
For boxers, the tours continue
The boxing stars are among the lucky few who are not only competing, but also training abroad. A 15-member team, including five who have already qualified for the Olympics, are training in Europe. The men have already participated in the Alexis Vastine International Tournament in France. Haryana’s Amit Panghal won gold at Nantes, where India had a haul of six medals.
The touring boxers have now moved their training base from Italy to Germany where they will compete in the Chemistry Cup. This would be the first international competition for the women in the team. Ludhiana’s Simranjit Kaur cannot hide her excitement. “Honestly, I am a little nervous as this would be my first competition in a very long time. But at the same time, I am quite excited too,” she said over the phone from Germany.
“We have been out of the country for a while now and the training and sparring sessions against French and Italian boxers have shown that we are progressing well,” adds the 25-year-old athlete. “Sitting at home was difficult though I got to spend time with family, something I have not been able to do in a number of years. But you tend to lose focus,” she added
Her excitement is contagious, but with only six months left for the opening of the Tokyo Games, time is running out for the elite athletes to reach their peak fitness. The good thing is that training has started, and more international events may soon happen for more athletes. As Simranjit says, “We are not the only ones affected by Covid — in the darkness of despair, one must find a ray of hope, and the athletes are doing their best to find it.” Touche.