New Delhi:He's the new heartthrob of the country that is cricket crazy, but he's not a cricketer. Vijender Kumar, India's first boxer to win an Olympic medal has certainly changed the face of boxing in the country. Yet the middleweight pugilist thinks he has a long way to go with his feet firmly planted on the ground.
In an exclusive interview with NDTV.com, Vijender talks about his future plans.
After the medal winning efforts in Beijing, did you expect receptions on this scale?
I had seen people giving warm receptions to cricketers after their victories and somewhere I knew if we performed well, we would get similar treatment. Before leaving for Beijing, people had expectations from us. Though we could not win a gold (in boxing) but at least we started off with a bronze. I hope it gets better from here.
How have things changed around you?
Now people know me and it's heartwarming to see them praising your efforts. But people, who are close to me like my family, friends and coaches, have kept me grounded. They have always been the constant source of support and encouragement. They are really proud and happy for me. And right now all of us are in a party mood (laughs).
How did you get drawn towards boxing and take it professionally despite the fact that it was not a money-generating sport?
Boxing is our regional (Haryana) sport and my brother was also a boxer. So it all started at home. One more important reason was that it is an individual sport. Once you are in the ring, you are all on your own. You have to outdo your opponent within those eight minutes.
(Smirks!) But what I like the most about boxing is that it is a very rough and tough game, very much a man's sport.
As far as money is concerned, it is there. Once you become a professional, it offers a lot of money. I agree, at the junior level, you have to strive hard. But I hope after this medal, people's attitude will change towards this sport.
What were the problems you faced and how did you handle them?
Well problems are part of one's life and they make you stronger and help you fight your fears and move forward. I too had my share of problems but thankfully I had support from all corners. I had failed to make the cut for Olympics in the first two qualifiers and that really hit my confidence level. That was perhaps the toughest time of my life. But my coach, family and friends stood by my side and encouraged me. I trained hard and finally won a gold medal at the final Asian qualifiers in Kazakhstan.
How supportive were the authorities and the federation?
They have been very supportive. The SAI (Sports Authority of India) and the Boxing Federation encouraged us very much. In fact, as a junior I was in SAI's hostel and trained there.
You got the backing of the family and the support of the authorities but there are many amateur boxers who are struggling due to financial insecurity. What's your take on that?
I completely agree with that. There is no financial security for most of the athletes. There are some companies who support us but not in a similar manner as they back the cricketers. Groups like ONGC, some banks and airlines; they have their teams with big cricketing names representing them. They should come forward and support other sports as well. It will definitely make a difference.
How much do you think groups like Mittal Champions Trust help in grooming sportspersons?
They play a big role as they are really helpful. Financial backing is very important for it keeps you focused on your sport. Without such support, a sportsman will keep worrying about his livelihood while he should be focusing on his preparations for events.
Heath Matthew, our physiotherapist, was appointed by the Mittal Champions Trust and he did a truly great job with us. With better coordination between such trusts and the federations, I am sure positive results will pour in.
So after Beijing, what are your next targets?
Seriously, after Beijing, it's really been very hectic. After toiling in the ring, the post-Olympic ceremonies have kept me on my toes. After all this settles down, I would like to relax for sometime and then start training.
I am eyeing gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games and then my next target is Asian Games 2010 in Guanzhou. In the London Olympics, I would try to qualify in the light heavyweight category but that's four years from now. I am still young and hopefully I will gain some weight by then.
And what about life outside the ring?
I am getting a lot of endorsements and modelling offers but my first priority remains boxing. But some years down the line I would like to provide a platform for budding boxers. I want to take boxing to a height where cricket is placed today. In the future, I will open a boxing academy.