On Wednesday morning, Shiva Thapa boarded a flight from Delhi to his hometown of Guwahati. It was a visit the 22-year-old was long looking forward to. This wasn’t because the boxer had spent a long time away from home. He had indeed spent a few days with his family only a month back, after the SAF Games, where he had won a gold medal. However there was a major difference because of which Thapa felt he could enjoy his time with his family.
“Back then I couldn’t really relax because I was constantly thinking about boxing and the fact that I hadn’t qualified for the Olympics yet. I don’t have any of that tension anymore,” Thapa said. The bantamweight boxer had of course become India’s first boxer to qualify for the Rio Olympics when he finished second in the Asia Oceania Olympic qualifiers in Qian’an, China on April 3.
Indeed unlike his previous visit, Thapa, now without any immediate pressure to make weight says he is looking forward to a taste of home cooking. “I’m pretty sure my mother would be planning a number of delicious dishes for me,” he said.
While he now looks forward to a break, Thapa is quick to admit that the quota spot earned was anything but an easy achievement. Boxing in India has been in turmoil for nearly the last four years ever and boxers have had to deal with the lack of exposure tours, national tournaments that would create more competition, in Qian’an the opportunity to compete under the national flag and even now the prospect of being barred from the Olympics by the international body if a national federation doesn’t form by May 14.
Thapa had an additional burden. During the trials for the Olympic qualifiers, he received a cut above his left eye after an accidental headbutt from his opponent. The injury needed stitches, which also meant the boxer couldn’t take part in sparring sessions for fear that the cut might open up again. “I didn’t have the greatest of preparation for the tournament. Not sparring before a tournament is like not studying before an exam. In fact for that period the only sparring that I was doing was in my mind,” he says.
Thapa though doesn’t want to dwell on the difficulties of his situation. “There are some things that are in your hand and other things that are out of your control. The only thing that I can do is to work on the things that I can control,” he says.
What he could control was his performance in the ring. Thapa needed to enter the final to assure himself of a quota spot. Ahead of his semifinal bout, against World Championship bronze medallist Keirat Yeraliev of Kazakhstan, Thapa had his task cut out. “I knew he was a good fighter and a bronze medalist at the world championships. But that didn’t bother me. Before the bout I had decided that I was going to destroy him,” he said.
Thapa had been in a similar position before. At the 2015 World Championships, he had missed out on his first shot at a quota spot after losing in the semifinals. “Ahead of my bout against the Kazakh boxer I didn’t want to be in a position where afterwords I would be wondering whether I could have done something differently. I was prepared to fire every gun that I had and leave everything I had in the ring,” he says. Thapa knew, that like himself, Yeraliev was a counterpuncher. “I had to come up with a way to surprise him. He would expect that I would box in the counterpunching style. So I decided to attack him right from the start. He wasn’t expecting me to box like that.”
Coach K Kutappa who accompanied the team was as much taken by surprise as the Kazakh. “This is a side of Shiva that I had never seen until now. He was usually a careful and boxer but he was very aggressive against the Kazakh. It wasn’t like he got involved in exchanges but he wasn’t afraid to attack and force him into making mistakes,” he says.
After the bout, Kutappa says he gently chided the boxer. “I told him if he had only boxed like this in the box off for the third spot at the World Championships, he would have won that bout for sure. But I am just glad that Shiva seems to have found his strengths. He is confident about his abilities and is in very good form right now,” he says.
Thapa himself is simply glad he only has to focus on the Olympics and doesn’t have to go through another round of qualifers to make the cut. And while he has another five months to prepare for Rio, Thapa believes he is in a race against time. “Qualification for the Olympics is only half the job. I have a lot of time but it doesn’t feel like that. The London Olympics were four years ago but for me it sometimes feels as if it was just yesterday,” he says.
Kutappa says the plan is for Thapa alongside Devendro Singh (who missed out on an Olympic quota after losing his third place box-off) to train abroad, preferably with the Irish team as soon as they can. Thapa though isn’t in a hurry just yet. “Right now I just want to concentrate on spending time with my family. I’ll rest up for a week, and then my life will be all about boxing once again,” he says.