NEW DELHI -- With the one-year ban imposed on her for a tearful outburst at the Asian Games ending tomorrow, former world champion Sarita Devi says the forced sabbatical proved to be a blessing in disguise as it helped her become a "thinking" boxer and a calmer person.
Devi was handed a one-year ban by the International Boxing Association (AIBA) for refusing to accept her bronze medal at the Asian Games after losing a controversial semifinal bout.
Sarita had cried bitterly on the podium and had even tried to hand her bronze to silver-medallist South Korean Park Ji-Na, to whom she had lost in the semis. The Indian later had to tender unconditional apologies to both the Games organising committee and AIBA for her actions.
She was nonetheless banned retrospectively from October 1, 2014 to October 1, 2015 and fined 1000 Swiss francs.
"I think I have become a much better boxer now. I have been boxing for the last 15 years and I think there is still lot of space for improvement. You never stop learning. Now after this one year, I would say, I'm much more cool, a thinking boxer. Overall, both mentally and physically I'm much better than before," Sarita told PTI in an interview.
"Now I'm training much harder than before. I have many expectations to fulfil. Right now I'm training under the watchful eyes of former Olympian and Asian Games Gold Medallist Dingko Singh. My first target is to win the world title next year and qualify for the Rio Olympics and there again win a bright gold medal for the country," she said.
The 30-year-old lightweight (60kg) boxer, who is currently training in Aurangabad, is eyeing next year's World Championships as her comeback competitive event.
"World Championship next year would be my comeback event which is also going to be the qualifying event for the Rio Olympics. I'm going to Liverpool for training for a few weeks before the World Championship," said the Manipuri.
Talking about how she spent the last one year, Sarita said she got a surgery for a nagging wrist injury, besides honing her skills rigorously during the ban period.
"It was a very quiet year for me on the playing front. I took rest and had an opportunity to get my right wrist surgery done. I had sustained this injury before the Glasgow Commonwealth Games and carried it to the Incheon Asian Games. Overall, it seems like yesterday...time goes flying," she said.
During this time, Sarita said her morale remained intact because of the support she got from various quarters, including cricket icon Sachin Tendulkar, who had hosted her at his Mumbai home.
"I got enough support from everywhere. Not only my family but the Sports Ministry, the ad-hoc committee boxing administration in India now (formerly Boxing India), my sponsors Olympic Gold Quest, Sachin Tendulkar sir, my fellow sportspersons and last but not the least my fellow Indians," Sarita said. "I am grateful to all of them for giving me the strength to withstand the tough time," she added.
Sarita said besides the external support, she also relied on her inner self-belief to keep herself motivated. "I wouldn't have been here without my family. They are my rock solid support and without them it's almost impossible to sustain the motivation level to come back. Apart from that, the dream of making my country's flag flying high like before, keeps me highly motivated," she said.
Claiming to have enjoyed her roller coaster professional life so far, the multiple-time Asian champion said it was nevertheless tough to deal with the fact that she had to stay away from competition for one year.
"I grew as a human being and I love the roller coaster ride. (But) not playing competitions was the hardest aspect of my life in this one year. I was born to box and not getting an opportunity was the hardest thing during this period," she said.
Olympic bronze-medallist M C Mary Kom recently created quite a stir by claiming that she faced discrimination in selection for being a North-Easterner. But Sarita said she has never encountered any such discrimination.
"I have not faced such situations in my career so far and hopefully will not face. I think everything in life not only in sports, should be done according to merit/talent," she said.