Find out how team India athletes are coming together for Tokyo Olympics

Olympic-bound Indian athletes Abhishek Verma, Amit Panghal, Savita Punia and others say what hope, progress and togetherness mean to them.
By Utathya Nag

As the one-year countdown for the Tokyo Olympics begins, Indian athletes continue to do their best in preparations for a chance to represent their country with pride on the biggest stage of all.

More so than ever in the light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Games next year represent a beacon of hope for many around the world.

An emblem of togetherness, the Olympics taking centre-stage in Japan from July 23, 2021, also symbolizes progress, even in the toughest of times.

Undoubtedly, the last few months have thrown up unprecedented challenges for all - but Indian athletes are still focused on their Olympic dream.

Hope drives Indian shooters

With 15 quota places already secured for the next year’s Games, India is all set to send its largest-ever shooting contingent to the Games next year. There is widespread belief that the shooters are India’s biggest medal hope in Tokyo.

“There were a lot of stellar performances by Indian shooters over the last couple of years and not surprisingly, the country is pinning its hopes on them for the Tokyo Olympics,” India’s 10m Air Pistol ace Abhishek Verma told the Olympic Channel.

“That motivates us. Even amidst the pandemic, we are training and utilizing the time to best improve our skills so we can live up to that hope

“There’s a collective hope that we will win medals and we will work hard for it,” he added.

Verma, who won gold medals at the 2019 Beijing and Rio shooting World Cups, and Asian Games 2018 gold medallist Saurabh Choudhary are set to be India’s biggest draws in the Men’s 10m Air Pistol event in Tokyo.

On a more personal note, the Tokyo Olympics also represents a realization of a ‘hope’ Verma has been nurturing for some time now.

“The Olympics have been a dream for me. It’s the first time I have qualified for the Olympics and I was ready. So, it was a little disappointing that it got pushed back.

“But now I have the hope that we can put it behind us and go to Tokyo with double the energy and preparation,” he said.

Seventeen-year-old 10m Air Rifle shooter Divyansh Singh Panwar, too, echoed Verma’s views.

“There’s a lot of potential in the current batch. Almost everyone has done well at the international level, winning medals at top competitions. There’s a lot of hope riding on the current lot at the Olympics and they are perfectly capable of shouldering these.

“We are hoping for two or three medals at least,” stated the two-time ISSF Junior World Cup gold medallist.

Both Verma and Panwar are part of NRAI’s 32-member core team for the upcoming Olympics.

Progress in tow, Indian boxers punch for success

Like shooting, India will also field their biggest-ever boxing contingent at the Tokyo Games.

As many as nine pugilists have already booked their tickets to Japan and that underlies Indian boxing’s rapid progress over the last few years - a timeframe which saw several Indian boxers reach global standards.

With a new crop of promising pugilists like Amit Panghal, Satish Kumar, Simranjit Kaur, Lovlina Borgohain and others joining established stars like MC Mary Kom and Vikas Krishan, Indian boxing looks stronger than ever before.

Illustrating his own tale of progress, Amit Panghal recalled, “I had to watch the Rio 2016 Olympics on TV. I wasn’t a top boxer then. I watched Uzbekistan’s Hasanboy Dusmatov clinch gold in my category.

“I lost to him twice in 2017 but was determined to become the best. Then I beat him in Jakarta for the 2018 Asian Games gold medal.”

Panghal has risen up the ranks rapidly since 2017 and is currently the world No. 1 in the world rankings in the 52kg flyweight category.

Primed for a medal run in Tokyo, Panghal also feels that the postponement of the Games hasn’t impeded his, or any other Indian boxer’s, progress in any way.

“It gives us time to focus on our weaknesses. We will progress and go to Tokyo even better prepared next year.”

Pooja Rani, too, will be better prepared. Four years ago she wasn’t able to qualify for Rio 2016 but this time around she was the first Indian female boxer to make the cut for Tokyo 2020.

She credits that to the exposure she got in international tournaments and the victories that built her confidence. With another year in hand, she is now even more determined.

“I had made my mind up that if I left the sport, people should know about me,” Pooja Rani told the Olympic Channel.

“I have trained at a stadium which had photos of all good players of the country and I always wanted to do just enough to have my photo on the wall as well,” she asserted.

Indian boxer Pooja Rani in action.

Togetherness key to hockey eves’ Tokyo aspirations

At Rio 2016, the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 1980. The historic outing, however, didn’t quite turn out as planned for the Indian eves as they managed just a single draw in their five matches and exited at the group stage.

Having already qualified for Tokyo, there’s an underlying belief within the team that the story will be very different this time around, mainly because of the team spirit and togetherness among the current batch of players.

“At Rio, the maturity level of the team wasn't quite up there. In the last four years, we have worked hard, spent a lot of time together. The togetherness, team unity, game awareness, game sense has improved a lot since last time.

“We know our team, our goals and game plan well. We know that if we play to our potential it doesn’t really matter who the opposition is,” goalkeeper Savita Punia, who was also part of the Rio contingent, explained.

She went on to explain how the team has been an open forum for everyone, irrespective of seniority.

“Ninety per cent of the team consists of youngsters and even they know what we want to achieve. Even they are not afraid to give seniors inputs if they feel it's needed,” she added.

Defender Gurjit Kaur chimed in and added, “Playing together is very important. It’s a team game and everyone needs to contribute towards success. It’s vital for us to work as a team.

“Everyone in this team are great friends, be it seniors or juniors,” she pointed out.

An intriguing year awaits Indian athletes, followed by a very eagerly awaited Olympics.