Paris Olympics: Being nervous helps me before a fight, says Nikhat Zareen

India's frontline boxer says "90 per cent preparation over, I need to work on my fitness and mental health now"

Nikhat Zareen on our Zoom call
Nikhat Zareen on our Zoom call

Gautam Bhattacharyya

From a girl better known as a challenger to the legendary M.C. Mary Kom even three years ago, Nikhat Zareen has, in her own words, become the "face of Indian boxing". This has, however, raised the expectations of a billion people as the two-time world champion and Asian Games bronze medallist is bracing for her Olympics debut in Paris, though she is ready to cope with it.

‘’Much as I am excited to be taking part in the Olympics, I am also nervous as it will be my first Games,’’ a candid Nikhat said. ‘’In a way, it’s good because if I am nervous, I have noticed that my body works well. Once I enter the ring, then of course nothing else matters.’’

Speaking at a virtual media interaction jointly hosted by Sports Authority of India (SAI), Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and Boxing Federation of India (BFI), the 27-year-old showed a clarity of thought about her preparations. ‘’See, I have done 90 per cent of the work, while for the rest 10 per cent I need to work on my fitness and mental health over the next one-and-a-half months. I will try to keep myself positive and give it all to bring a medal from Paris,’’ she said.

It certainly worked to Nikhat’s advantage that she was the first Indian boxer to earn an Olympics quota in the Hangzhou Asian Games last year, while more have made the cut so far, including Lovlina Borgohain, a bronze medallist in Tokyo in the 75 kg class.

The Union ministry of sports and youth affairs has spent a total of Rs 52.78 crore on the Paris Olympics cycle for training, exposure trips and injury management, and the onus will now be on the likes of Nikhat and Amit Panghal to show that it’s been money well spent.

Nikhat, a reigning world champion in the 50 kg class, will know who her rivals are at the draw, as there is no seeding system in the Olympics. However, she is not unduly bothered. ‘’Seeding doesn’t matter much, because there are a lot of boxers who, even after seeding, don’t win a medal. At the 2023 World Championships, I was unseeded since I came down from 52 to 50 kg. I have also noticed that whenever I have a tough draw, I perform well.’’

Nikhat's journey since 2022 had been so rewarding that despite Paris being her first Olympics bow, she gives the impression of having been there and done that. From the spunky girl who once wanted simply to trend on social media, she is now a super focused professional.

‘’It is a big thing that I am getting to see this. I feel blessed and grateful that God has made me so capable that my dream of becoming a world champion has come true. But the journey is not over. My ultimate dream is to win an Olympic medal,’’ she said.

Reflecting on her preparations over almost 10 months, Nikhat said from NIS Patiala that she had been sticking to the long term plan laid down by her coaches. ‘’I have been to Montenegro and then Turkey, where I got an opportunity to spar with the silver medallist in Tokyo, who could be my potential rival in Paris,’’ she  said.

The Elorda Cup in Kazakhstan last month, a tune-up event for Paris, saw Nikhat win gold in 52 kg as the Indian contingent won 12 medals (four men and eight women) to finish third in the final tally.

Finally, what would be her own recipe to beat any stress or nervousness in the coming days? ‘’I have found my own way to unwind by listening to music or playing cards, or Uno with my teammates,’’ she smiled. 

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