When you consider the fact that competing in the Olympics is one of the most significant milestones of a sportsperson's career, it's understandable how disappointing the postponement of the 2020 Games would have been to them. This was certainly true for India's boxers, nine of whom had qualified for the Tokyo Games at the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in early March last year. It wasn't the case, however, for Manish Kaushik, who had made the cut in the men's 63kg division.
That's because the 25-year-old bronze medallist at the 2019 World Championships had picked up a serious injury while making the cut for the Games, one that would likely have seriously jeopardised Kaushik's chances at Tokyo last year. The injury that kept him from training for several months, prevented him from returning to the national camp and led to him missing out even as the Indian squad returned to action in Europe last November. Kaushik joined the national camp in Bellary just two weeks ago, after a break of nearly 10 months.
"I picked up a bicep tear on my right arm during my Olympic qualification bout in Jordan. I think I got hit with an elbow at the end of the first round," he says of the incident that occurred in his bout against Commonwealth Games champion Anthony Garside of Australia. "I immediately felt something was wrong. It hurt me every time I tried to jab. My right arm was essentially useless for the rest of the bout. I had to win that bout, so my coaches told me to bear the pain and win the second round as well," he recalls.
Kaushik managed to pull out a narrow split-decision win and got an MRI done the following day. "That test didn't show anything. At that time, people didn't really think it was anything serious because there was no obvious sign of damage. There was some swelling but there was no discoloration or anything," he recalls.
Not long after his return to India, Kaushik would learn the Olympics themselves had been postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. As sporting activity shut down across the world and India entered a nationwide lockdown, Kaushik returned to his hometown in Haryana. It was when he resumed training at a local facility that he realised he still hadn't recovered from his injury.
"It wasn't hurting as much as before but it felt as if there was no power in that arm," he recalls. It was only once the lockdown ended that Kaushik could travel to Mumbai to get his injury checked out by an expert. The consensus was a severe muscle tear. Although Kaushik avoided surgery, he required a long period of rehabilitation. The fact that he could recuperate without any pressure, he admits, was a stroke of fortune.
"Even the doctors told me I was lucky. It would have been really difficult for me to compete at the Olympics with the injury. I would have still fought if I had no option, but I would have always been thinking I was going (in) at a disadvantage," he says.
Kaushik spent his rehabilitation at the Army Sports Institute in Pune and although he continued to work on the other unaffected parts of his body, there were elements of training he would miss out on. Especially significant was the fact that he would not be able to join the national team for a near-two-month-long training camp in Europe. That camp, which also featured two high-level competitions, had been arranged by national coach Santiago Nieva, who felt the long period of inactivity caused by the coronavirus would have a severe impact on the Indian boxing contingent.
"It was a big disappointment not to be able to travel to Italy. More than that, it was really important for me to take part in any sort of competition, but there was no option but to recover completely," Kaushik says.
Ten months after he suffered his injury, though, Kaushik is finally completely recovered. He's now looking to make up for lost time. What has helped, he says, is the fact that he's used his time well. At the time of the 2019 World Championships and subsequently the 2020 Olympic qualifier, Kaushik -- who'd won a silver in the 60kg division at the 2018 Commonwealth Games -- had still not grown into his new weight division, the men's 63kg light welterweight. As a consequence, he'd been at a significant size disadvantage compared to his rivals, most of whom had dropped down from the 64kg division following a re-jig of the Olympic weight categories in March 2019.
That's less of an issue now. "When I was competing at the Olympic qualifiers, I weighed around 63kg on the day before my weigh in. Now I'm around 65kg. I've added about two kilos of muscle over the last year. That's going to make my punches much stronger than before," he says.
He's also taken the time to study potential rivals. "Once I knew I had a lot of time, I started going through the videos of the boxers in my weight division who had qualified for the Olympics and who I expect will do so. I made sure not to waste any time that I had," he says.
Over the next couple of months, Kaushik is hoping to get some much-needed match practice. The next big event for Indian boxers is the Asian Boxing Championships, an event that was also postponed to 2021, and Kaushik wants to get into the ring as soon as possible. "I've been out of the game for a very long time so I want to compete again. I'm physically stronger than ever and training harder than before. It's not just enough to qualify for the Olympics. The goal for me is to win a medal at the Olympics. I have been lucky that I got the chance to recover from my injury and prepare the way I needed to. Now I have to make it count," he says.