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Asian Games

Seema Punia, oldest Indian Athletics medallist, has no last bus to catch

India's oldest ever Athletics medallist at the Asian Games, 40-year-old Seema Punia has seen her sport transform over the 23 years of her career. Now also doubling up as a mentor, the legend says she remains hopelessly in love with her sport.

Seema Punia, oldest Indian Athletics medallist, has no last bus to catch
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Seema Punia

By

Dipankar Lahiri

Updated: 2 Oct 2023 6:32 AM GMT

Hangzhou: Long after the dust had settled on a frantic day at the Hangzhou Olympic Sports Stadium on Sunday - a day featuring a record nine medals and a raging controversy around an attempted disqualification of Jyothi Yarraji - the 40-year-old Seema Punia was seen lingering on, patiently obliging a crowd of Chinese fans with requests for selfies.

A few hours earlier, she had won the Asian Games discus throw bronze medal with a season best 58.62 metres, becoming the oldest Indian woman to ever win an Athletics medal at the Asiad. The feat also made her the only Indian woman other than PT Usha to have won an individual medal at three different editions.

"This is my third Asian Games medal, now I plan to enjoy it," Seema Punia told The Bridge while casting a loving look at the medal in her hands. "There will be time later to think about my future, but you will definitely see me at the Paris Olympics," she said.

Having started her senior career in 2000, Seema has won three Asiad medals, five Commonwealth Games medals and made four Olympics appearances already in the last 23 years. Her former teammates include Anju Bobby George, the current vice-president of the AFI, and Madhuri Saxena, the mother of Sunday's 1500m medallist Harmilan Bains.

On what keeps her going, Seema said, "The rising profile of Indian Athletics increases my willpower too. When Neeraj Chopra won an Olympics gold, I thought I want to do this too... I know age is not on my side, but I am happy with where I am in my sport."

In many ways, Seema's bronze medal was one of the biggest highlights on Sunday, but it flew relatively under the radar because of other events. Her winning throw reached a distance she has not been able to reach since the Olympics two years ago. Till the third attempt in Sunday's final, she was in 5th position. By the end of the night, she would overtake the South Korean and Thai athletes to rank only behind the Chinese in the final tally.

Player-cum-coach

One of the reasons why Seema Punia lingered on at the stadium long after everyone else had left was because she is not a resident of the Asian Games Village here and has no last bus to catch. She is a rare athlete who has opted to stay outside because of a severe food allergy she has had for the last four years.

Staying at a hotel in the city because the non-gluten-free food at the Village will make her develop huge rashes on her body - photos of which she carries around on her phone to remind herself that she cannot function like other athletes - Seema has been maintaining a customised diet with help from some locals.

Some other much younger athletes part of the Indian contingent, like Saturday's hammer throw medallist Kiran Baliyan, were seen assuring the AFI officials taking the last bus that they would remain with Seema didi.

"I have always tried to raise the level of everyone around me. I know the things athletes need and the emotions they go through. The success you see in Athletics, there is a lot of teamwork going on behind the scenes," Seema Punia said on her unofficial role as a player-cum-coach of a new generation of players.

Kiran was seen running to Seema for guidance during Saturday's hammer throw final. Priya, one of the most promising discus throwers in the junior circuit, also trains under Seema. High jumper Pooja, who is part of the contingent in Hangzhou, says it was Seema who gifted her a crash mat after seeing her performances.

"The technique in discus and hammer throw is the same. Kiran's technique still needs some work, she can reach the 19m mark soon. I helped her out as a senior as this was her first Asian Games, sharing my experiences with her. I help out many such others," said Seema.

"The level of discus throwers in our country has gone up by a lot since the time I started out, I believe for Indians to reach the world level will not be a very hard task in coming years. In 2014, only I won an individual gold at the Asian Games, in 2018, there were golds won everywhere, wait and see how we improve on that this time," she added.

Seema Punia patiently obliges Chinese fans at the end of a long day

One of the differences - apart from the obvious one on suitability of food - from her earlier years is the level of attention given to players. On the difference between creating even national records in obscurity back in the day and now when achievements become viral on social media - sometimes even without any merit - she said, "They say this is the age of 4G, everyone is on Instagram these days."

Many achievements from the Asian Games have gone viral on Instagram over the last few days, and many will in the next week, but if there is one achievement that deserves to break social media servers, it is of the 40-year-old Seema Punia, performing with a heavily stitched back, winning yet another medal to her already glittering legacy.

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