Seema Punia insists she never went ‘missing’. Instead, on March 28 – around the same time when the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) officials claimed they weren’t aware of her whereabouts – Punia says she flung the disc at a distance of 64.70 metres during a training session in the USA.
The effort, more than 2m better than her national record mark of 62.62m set in 2016, gave her a slight hope of challenging Dani Stevens for the gold medal. But the Australian great wouldn’t give her a sniff. Punia couldn’t come up with a similar throw in front of a packed house at the Carrara Stadium on Thursday, but even if she would have, the effort would have been way short than what Stevens eventually managed to win the gold.
India managed a silver-bronze finish, with Punia winning her fourth-straight Commonwealth Games medal while Navjeet Dhillon, competing in her first major event, scripted a dramatic comeback with her last throw to steal the bronze medal from New Zealand’s Sositina Kakeai.
Stevens, meanwhile, killed the competition with her fourth attempt, hurling the discus at a distance of 68.26m. Punia, whose best effort of 60.41 came with her first throw, quietly walked over and congratulated her rival, even though the competition was still not over. “I told her, ‘hang on, there’s a throw remaining. Let’s end on a high,’” Stevens said.
It wasn’t just about ending this particular night on a high. In all probability, this will be the last Commonwealth Games for Stevens and Punia, a final chapter in the rivalry traces back to more than a decade.
The duo first came across each other at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, when Punia finished ahead of her on the podium – winning a silver medal – by throwing more than a meter better. Stevens skipped the Delhi Games but they would meet again in Glasgow in 2014.
By then, the Australian had not just gained ground on her Indian counterpart, but comfortably overtaken her. Stevens won the gold by an overwhelming gap of 6 meters between her and Punia, who yet again settled for silver. “I think we both bring out the best in each other. Her name was still Antil when we first competed together in Melbourne. We just push each other a lot and it’s a great, healthy rivalry,” Stevens said.
Punia, meanwhile, knew Gold Coast was her last chance to win something big.
“We trained together and I did not think she was that fit. I was following her season and I thought she would throw 64 or 65,” Punia said. “During a training session on March 28, I had thrown 64.70m. But I could not do it here.”
For the Indian, though, the rivalry went beyond the results on field. Punia said she grudgingly admired the system that was behind Stevens’ growth in the 12 years of the two throwers competing against each other. “She has a lot of coaches and support staff with her. What do we have?” she questions.
Punia is upset that instead of providing required support, her moves have been constantly questioned. Just before the Commonwealth Games, the National Anti Doping Agency was criticized for not testing Punia – who served a sanction for failing a dope test as a junior – immediately after she won the Federation Cup gold medal in Patiala in March.
Hitting out at critics
Later that month, the AFI expressed concerns about her whereabouts. While rest of India’s track and field had reached Australia, Punia’s location was unknown. Some suggested she was training in Russia, a country at the heart of a doping scandal especially in track and field.
For Punia, it was a controversy that never really was. She insisted she was in the USA preparing for the Commonwealth Games.
“What should I tell you about my training? I have opened India’s account (in athletics at the Gold Coast Games) and delivered the medal at 34. You should be thankful for that. Why is everybody so interested in where I am training,” she argued.
She now wants to focus on mentoring young throwers like Dhillon, who turned the tables around in style on Thursday night. Dhillon, 23, was in fourth place behind Hakeai until the final round, when she threw the disc at a distance of 57.43m, better than the New Zealander’s 57.16m. That left Hakeai needed a better throw in her final attempt but, under pressure, she could manage just 56.96m.
Punia said the support system in the country needs to improve to ensure young throwers like Dhillon do not fade away. “If she gets the proper support, medals will keep coming in discus throw. If she does not, discus throw in India is over,” Punia said.