New Delhi, July 27: He remains the youngest boxer in India's Olympic contingent even four years after his debut at the big event but what has changed drastically for Shiva Thapa are "strength, endurance and maturity" heading to Rio as a top medal contender.
All of 22, the Assam-boy is currently world No.6 in the International Boxing Association (AIBA) rankings and is only the third Indian boxer ever to have won a World Championships medal (a bronze in 2015 Doha edition).
Add to that, he is a two-time Asian Championships medallist (a gold in 2013 and a bronze in 2015) and was the first boxer to qualify from the country for Rio with a silver at the continental qualifiers in March.
Shiva was barely 18 when he qualified for the 2012 Games, which was a forgettable campaign ending in an opening-round loss. But four years later, he is being seen as a medal hope in the bantamweight (56kg) category, having delivered good results in the past three years.
Speaking to PTI about his journey so far, Shiva recalled how he had wanted to compete in the Olympics as a sub-junior when he saw the likes of Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar take Indian boxing to new heights leading upto the 2008 Beijing Games.
"Time flies, isn't it? I feel London was just yesterday. I remember I had even thought of competing in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, I used to calculate whether I would be eligible for it because I was still a sub-junior at that time," recalled the Guwahati-based boxer.
That dream was realised four years after Beijing when he made the cut for London. Considered the "baby" of the eight-strong team that went to the British capital, Shiva, a former Youth Olympics silver-medallist, has now metamorphosed into a confident contender.
And although a sporting family backed him to the hilt in the pursuit of his dreams, it was not entirely a smooth passage to the heights he scaled.
"In Guwahati where I am based, I grew up in a neighbourhood which was pretty infamous for street fights. Autos and rickshaws would refuse to go there as they were scared of being beaten up by local gangs. There were gang leaders and even kids of my age used to get involved in all this," he revealed.
But Shiva managed to keep his focus on sports thanks to his karate instructor father Padam Thapa, who was also his formative coach. He eventually moved to the Army Sports Institute in Pune before NIS Patiala became his second home like all other top Indian boxers.
"I tried everything from football to gymnastics to athletics before I found my natural calling in boxing. I love this sport but had I not been a boxer, I would have been a footballer," he added.
At present, long-time national assistant coach C Kuttappa is the man he is most closely associated with as far as training is concerned.
Kuttappa, who was the personal trainer of India's first Olympic medallist Vijender Singh in 2008, has been handling Shiva's training since 2013.
"He is strict no doubt but then I feel very comfortable with him. He pushes me hard but at the same time, he is very caring," Shiva said.
Kuttappa was also the personal trainer of M Suranjoy Singh -- the flyweight sensation who won eight back-to-back international gold medals for India before being undone by a knee injury.
Speaking of his association with Shiva and the transformation he has seen in him, Kuttappa said, "I have been observing him since he was a sub-junior. From London to Rio, the one thing that has improved immensely in him is his strength. Even if the intensity of his hitting is not that high, he ends up striking hard because of his strength."