After three poor attempts, Seema Punia looked skywards, hoping for divine intervention. But all she could see were dark clouds hovering over head. In a way, it was symbolic. Her career has been anything but a clear blue sky. But on Monday, the discus thrower, formerly known as Seema Antil, finally changed the script and lifted the gloom that has dogged her career ever since she began as a promising junior 14 years ago.
One throw of 61.03m went a long way to add a golden hue to the rather smudged slate, and India won its first athletics gold — the fifth overall — at the Incheon Asian Games.
On the podium, Seema wept as the national anthem echoed through an almost-empty Main Asiad Stadium. “It was a very emotional moment for me. All the pain and sacrifices came to my mind when I was on the podium,” she said.
A late bloomer of sorts, Seema’s talent was never in question. She was called a ‘millennium child’ when, as a teenager, she won a gold medal at the 2000 World Junior Championships in Santiago, Chile.
However, she tested positive for the stimulant pseudoephedrine and her medal was withdrawn. She claimed she had taken a medicine for a cold on her way from India to Chile, and was unaware the tablet contained any banned substance. She escaped a ban after a two-member panel of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) heard her case and recommended that she be warned rather than suspended.
Even though she clinched the bronze medal at the same event two years later, her performances since then have always been looked at cynically.
To add to her woes, her transition from junior to senior was rather rough, further fuelling speculation about her ‘natural’ strength.
On some days, she would be the best. Seema even gave the then national champion Neelam Jai Singh a run for money. But those days were rare.
The emergence of Delhi Commonwealth Games gold medallist Krishna Poonia, who finished fourth on Monday, further complicated things for her. Moreover, her back started giving her trouble and affecting her performance.
Days before the Doha Asian Games, she found herself at the centre of a controversy yet again. Seema was scheduled to make her Asian Games debut at Doha 2006, but withdrew from the Indian team at the last minute and returned home. There were allegations that she tested positive for a banned substance during the athletics team’s training camp in Muscat.
The AFI convened a panel and found that she was innocent. Although given the green signal to compete, she did not travel to Doha, citing personal reasons and the negative publicity surrounding the case.
Seema resurfaced four years later at the Delhi Commonwealth Games by winning the silver medal. But just when things were starting to look up, a back injury forced her to skip the Guangzhou Asian Games.
She did most of her rehab and training at the Throwers Academy in the US to get her career back on track. Her husband Ankush, a former national record holder in discus throw, fine-tuned her technique and the results have been apparent ever since. “This medal means a lot because this was my first Asian Games. I missed the two previous Games partly because of a doping allegation in 2006 in which I was innocent, and also due to injury,” she said. “Finally, I have managed to win something big. Hopefully this will end the gloom that has dogged my career.”