‘Now the media wants me’

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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In conversation with Vijay Kumar, Mary Kom, Joydeep Karmakar and Saina Nehwal
Open Olympic Conversations ~ Part III

LONDON ~ One of them has won India’s only silver so far at London 2012, another is assured of a medal at the time of writing, having made it to the semi-finals of the women’s flyweight boxing. The third, quite unexpectedly, finished a creditable fourth in the 50m prone shooting event, and shows great promise. In this week’s Open Olympic Conversations, BORIA MAJUMDAR speaks to VIJAY KUMAR, MARY KOM and husband Onkholer Kom, JOYDEEP KARMAKAR and SAINA NEHWAL, whose bronze at these Games, while creditable, didn’t quite live up to the great expectations of this super-athlete

‘Now the media wants me’

I hadn’t really broken the ice with Vijay Kumar before London. We’d met several times, most notably during the 2010 Commonwealth Games where he won three golds, but the fauji from Himachal had never let his guard down and the conversations had little aftertaste. A silver at these Games changed that—a much relieved Vijay Kumar opened up, and left me with some of my best memories of these Olympics. We spoke first at the Royal Artillery Barracks, then the Westfield shopping mall in Stratford and finally at the athletes’ entrance to the Games village between 3 and 5 August

Q You’d won everything in the past, which includes medals at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games, world cups… an Olympic medal was missing. Do you consider this your best achievement?

Vijay Kumar: Dekho, the Olympics is the biggest sports competition for any athlete. If you want to leave a permanent mark, you have to win at this stage. I am not trying to say I wasn’t happy with the other medals, but winning an Olympic medal for my country is fundamentally different. It is the best medal I have won so far and the best moment of my career.

Q Your event stretches over two days and to shoot four sets of five in 4 seconds must be really hard. Tell us how you stay focused under pressure.

VK: We pistol shooters put in years to learn to do this. My coach, Pavel Smirnov, has taught me tricks to calm my nerves under extreme pressure. I was regularly shooting 585/ 586 during practice [out of 600] and knew there was every chance of making it to the final if I could repeat these scores. I had a good first day and was on 293 out of 300. It was important to stay relaxed and repeat this on Day 2 to get a berth in the six-men final. I scored 292 on Day 2, which was good enough. I have always done my best in finals; here too, I got 5 out of 5 in the first set in the final. From then on, I knew I was in contention.

Q What now? A couple of drinks to celebrate the medal?

VK: I don’t drink, I will celebrate in other ways. Will eat a lot, speak to my family back home and hopefully this medal will see many more take up pistol shooting in India.

(The day after, at the Westfield mall)

Q Does the Olympic champ feel different this morning?

VK: Nahi bhai, nothing feels different. Haan, there are many more calls for interviews, pehle media friends didn’t call me much but now things are different.

Q What gets you to Westfield?

VK: Was feeling hungry, dada. Joydeep and I wanted to eat Indian food and decided to come to the food court here. But I got stuck doing some interviews and can’t find Joydeep now.

(Joydeep was done eating paratha-chana and laddoo, and was licking his lips when Vijay and I caught up with him. Vijay didn’t look amused.)

Q You think this will have an impact on shooting in Himachal and more generally in the country?

VK: Shooting became a serious sport in India after Athens. In the Army, we have taken it up really seriously. Many good shooters are coming up the ranks. The more you win medals, the more people will take to the sport. Now that Gagan and I have won medals here, you can expect another boost. In this context, I must say that organisations like OGQ [Olympic Gold Quest] have done a great job helping us get the best facilities. Also, these two medals will really strengthen the hand of the National Rifle Association of India. You have to have a structured system in place to win medals consistently and we in India are slowly getting there.

‘Hope this gets me support from my state’

No one had given Joydeep Karmakar a chance before London. He had struggled to fund his training, had issues with his ammunition, but he didn’t give up. At the end of Round 5 in the final here, he was within striking distance of a medal, but he finished fourth with a score of 699.1, just a point behind the bronze medal winner

Q Great show, Joydeep. No one had given you a chance except Sunny Thomas [India’s chief shooting coach], who’d said I should watch out for you.

JK: Thanks, but it didn’t start well at all for me in the competition. In fact, it was very difficult at the start with equipment malfunctioning and I was under great pressure. That the day got better and I made the final is something I couldn’t even dream of when the event started. I was putting in more than my best and had things gone according to plan, I would have shot a 596 for sure in the qualification. That would have given me a medal.

In a sport like ours you need all the support because ammunition is expensive. I hope this Olympics is proof that I can do it at this level and this should get me some support from my state government in West Bengal to keep doing it at the Asian Games and then at the Rio Olympics. It may sound like a cliché but this is really the beginning.

Q Did you nurture thoughts of a medal at any point during the final?

JK: Not really. I was only trying to shoot my best. I was in contention and at one point was just 0.7 points behind the bronze medal winner. A few more 10.7s, and I would have got it. But I am really happy that I finished fourth in an event in which India has never done well. It is evidence that I am good enough to survive at this level and do one better in the next Olympics.

Q People at home should be mighty relieved and thrilled.

JK: My son, who is really small, has only heard of the Nobel Prize. For him it is the only prize that matters. So a medal isn’t of any consequence to him. He wants his father to come back to him as early as possible. Everyone else at home is really happy that I have done well. At one level, the challenge is to prove to yourself that you are good enough; you need to know first that you can compete with the world’s best. This performance has given me a lot of confidence, I know I can hold my own at the highest stage.

Q What next?

JK: Will take some time off before I plunge back into training. I haven’t won a medal, so my Olympic dream is not fulfilled. I will do all I can to better this. I will first train for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, then for the Asian Games, then Rio 2016.

‘An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal’

Saina Nehwal’s great run this year (she won the Swiss Open, Thailand Open and the Indonesia Open Super Series) must have made her fans back home hope she will go the distance in London. That was not to be, but Saina is not disheartened with her bronze, and all set to return to the grind of training. I caught up with her at the Wembley Plaza Hotel soon after the medal ceremony

Q From the despair of Beijing to the joy of London, the last four years have been extremely interesting. Can you now forget Beijing?

Saina: No I can’t. Beijing was my first Olympics and the sensation of playing in a first Olympics is always very different. And I was up 11-3 in the third game and then blew my chance of winning a medal for India. I can never forget the match against Maria Kristin Yulianti of Indonesia. It was a match I should have won and it will forever remain one of my saddest moments. Having said that, I am extremely happy I won a medal here. I always wanted to do well for India, my family and myself, and I am glad my country is proud of me today. I had worked really hard after Beijing and it paid off.

Q The win was a little fortuitous with Wang Xin conceding the match in rather unfortunate circumstances. Will this spur you on to now try and beat the Chinese?

SN: Surely. I have beaten a number of them in the recent past and am looking forward to playing them again in the future. While they are very good players, I have beaten a number of them recently and will want to do so in the future as well.

Q Tell me about your routine. What is an average Saina Nehwal day?

SN: I get up at 6 in the morning and do some physical exercise before breakfast around 8.30am. Breakfast is the usual eggs, milk, bread and the like. Then I start my training session. Once training is over, I come back to the academy where I stay, have lunch at the academy itself at 1 pm. Lunch consists of chicken, dal, roti, rice etcetera. After an hour of rest, I train once again before switching off for the day. In the evening, I try to stay relaxed and have my dinner at 9.30-10 pm before going to bed.

Q Sounds like a boring routine. Will you now give yourself a break and relax a little?

SN: It is not boring at all; not for me, I like it this way. I am trying to do something for my country, and to do that I am willing to make the highest of sacrifices. But, yes, I will take a few days off on returning to India before getting back to the tour.

Q You really wanted to beat the Chinese at the Olympics, but it didn’t happen here. Does it take some sheen off this medal?

SN: I don’t think so. A win is a win and an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal. Also I beat the Chinese in the Indonesian Open in July and will now work harder to better my record against them. I’m proud of the way I played and I’m sure the country is happy for me.

‘Now I can quit the sport happy’

Training in Liverpool at the Kirby boxing club in the run-up to the Olympics, away from the media glare, MC Mary Kom’s focus on the Games couldn’t be sharper. I’d been in touch with her and husband Onkholer and Team Mary for weeks. At the time of writing, she was already assured of a medal, but Mary wasn’t quite done yet. This chat took place after she had won her first round against Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk, a hard-fought victory over a former world champion

Q First reactions? And what were you doing after the bout?

Mary Kom: I was just too exhausted physically to do anything. As you saw, it was a really tough fight. I came back to the village, went straight to the shower and then went to sleep. I woke up when Nikhil (her physio, Nikhil Latte, from OGQ) called me just now and will now have dinner. My coach, Charles Atkinson, has asked me to have a very heavy dinner because I need to keep my body weight at a steady 51 kilos through the competition. I will check my weight after dinner and then go to sleep.

At the end of her second round, which she won to assure herself a medal, I caught up with husband Onkholer (Onler to friends)

Q Dream fulfilled, Onler?

Onler: I am very, very proud of Mary. I am glad she has won an Olympic medal for India. She was determined to do well here and has sacrificed a lot for this medal. The children and the family miss her every moment, but we know this is a sacrifice that will give her the greatest satisfaction. The whole of India is proud of her today and I still can’t believe my wife is an Olympic champion.

Q Mary keeps talking about the sacrifices you have made. Tell me about it.

Onler: You must remember my wife is a boxer. She is very short tempered (laughs), but I don’t complain. It is only natural that she will be like this. When she is away, I look after the children. It is hard but I consider it my duty because as a mother she is always concerned. We have planned this out between us and I am glad it has all worked out. But when she is at home, she plays the role of mother and wife to perfection. She makes food, plays with the kids and is only my wife then. It is not really any sacrifice, you know. It is about knowing what is best for each other and doing it for each other.

Q Mary, seeing Onler and your mother here must be terrific. Your entire team is here to support you.

Mary: I can’t describe the feeling. It is just wonderful to have the people I love close to me here. I wanted to win an Olympic medal all my life, and finally I have. I have won five world championships, but this medal I did not have, and unless a sportsperson does well at the Olympics, she can’t call herself a complete athlete. Now I can quit the sport satisfied. None of this would have been possible without my close ones next to me. It has made this Olympic experience that much more special and I want to thank all, especially Viren Rasquinha and OGQ, my coach Charles Atkinson and everyone at home for standing by me.