Photos: In Sonepat, women wrestlers breaking barriers

Feb 18, 2020 01:48 IST
Women wrestlers at a Sonepat wrestling academy. Till a week before the national selection trials for the Tokyo Olympics qualifier, Sonam Mallik, 18, had never competed at the senior level. Yet her coach, Ajmer Malik, knew she was ready. Ajmer convinced the Wrestling Federation of India to give her a chance. She went on to beat Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik to seal a place in the Indian team.

Women wrestlers at a Sonepat wrestling academy. Till a week before the national selection trials for the Tokyo Olympics qualifier, Sonam Mallik, 18, had never competed at the senior level. Yet her coach, Ajmer Malik, knew she was ready. Ajmer convinced the Wrestling Federation of India to give her a chance. She went on to beat Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik to seal a place in the Indian team.

Sonam, from a village called Madina, learnt her wrestling at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Academy in Gohana, in Sonepat. The academy was started by her coach Ajmer in 2012, at a time when not a single akhada in the entire district allowed women. Following in Ajmer’s footsteps, several centres have now opened their doors to women, and three new centres are exclusively female.

Sonam, from a village called Madina, learnt her wrestling at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Academy in Gohana, in Sonepat. The academy was started by her coach Ajmer in 2012, at a time when not a single akhada in the entire district allowed women. Following in Ajmer’s footsteps, several centres have now opened their doors to women, and three new centres are exclusively female.

Five years ago, Rajesh Saroha, a former wrestler, left his job with an insurance company to set up a women-only akhada here at Mamta Modern Sr. Sec. School in Rathdhana village. Around 15km away is Yudhvir Rana akhada, on the outskirts of a Kakroi village. And in Barwasni is a third dedicated girls’ wrestling academy located at Geetanjali Sr. Secondary School. Over 120 athletes train at these three centres.

Five years ago, Rajesh Saroha, a former wrestler, left his job with an insurance company to set up a women-only akhada here at Mamta Modern Sr. Sec. School in Rathdhana village. Around 15km away is Yudhvir Rana akhada, on the outskirts of a Kakroi village. And in Barwasni is a third dedicated girls’ wrestling academy located at Geetanjali Sr. Secondary School. Over 120 athletes train at these three centres.

Rajesh Saroha (in black), who runs the Khadkhoda academy, said Sonam’s victory over the famous Sakshi will spark even greater interest in women’s wrestling in the area. “Seven years ago it was difficult even to field a 10-member girls team from Sonepat in a state competition,” Saroha said. “Now the scenario has changed. There is intense competition in each weight category and sometimes as many as 20 wrestlers fight for one place.”

Rajesh Saroha (in black), who runs the Khadkhoda academy, said Sonam’s victory over the famous Sakshi will spark even greater interest in women’s wrestling in the area. “Seven years ago it was difficult even to field a 10-member girls team from Sonepat in a state competition,” Saroha said. “Now the scenario has changed. There is intense competition in each weight category and sometimes as many as 20 wrestlers fight for one place.”

Sakshi’s 2016 Rio bronze was itself a catalyst for change, as was the movie Dangal, released the same year. Saroha said parents started to show more and more interest in introducing their daughters to the mat. “We started with our own daughters, and after the girls started winning medals, the villagers have started taking interest,” said Saroha’s brother Balbir, who runs the school.

Sakshi’s 2016 Rio bronze was itself a catalyst for change, as was the movie Dangal, released the same year. Saroha said parents started to show more and more interest in introducing their daughters to the mat. “We started with our own daughters, and after the girls started winning medals, the villagers have started taking interest,” said Saroha’s brother Balbir, who runs the school.

Saroha’s akhada now has girls from neighbouring states, for whom Saroha has built a hostel. It accommodates 10, with plans to expand the capacity to 60. Sunita, a wrestling coach from Haryana Sports Authority, is also posted at the centre. “Having a woman coach at the centre gives confidence to the parents that their daughter is in a safe environment,” said Sunita, who had trained to be a wrestler alongside Sakshi at Rohtak.

Saroha’s akhada now has girls from neighbouring states, for whom Saroha has built a hostel. It accommodates 10, with plans to expand the capacity to 60. Sunita, a wrestling coach from Haryana Sports Authority, is also posted at the centre. “Having a woman coach at the centre gives confidence to the parents that their daughter is in a safe environment,” said Sunita, who had trained to be a wrestler alongside Sakshi at Rohtak.

At the senior intra-state championship in Hisar this year, the district finished second. One of the reasons why coaches here think concentrating on girls pays more is because they are more focused than boys. “Girls are more sincere and they single-mindedly work towards their goals. They do not have distractions and in five years (of training) they are ready for senior international meets,” said Sunita.

At the senior intra-state championship in Hisar this year, the district finished second. One of the reasons why coaches here think concentrating on girls pays more is because they are more focused than boys. “Girls are more sincere and they single-mindedly work towards their goals. They do not have distractions and in five years (of training) they are ready for senior international meets,” said Sunita.

Saroha had a roadmap when he opened the centre and the girls are ticking off all the boxes.“My goal was to have our trainees in sub-junior international meets within five years,” he said. “Aarti—Saroha’s niece who won silver at the U-15 Asian Championships in Taichung City in November—is already there and representing the country in U-15 tournaments. There are others girls who are in the line.”

Saroha had a roadmap when he opened the centre and the girls are ticking off all the boxes.“My goal was to have our trainees in sub-junior international meets within five years,” he said. “Aarti—Saroha’s niece who won silver at the U-15 Asian Championships in Taichung City in November—is already there and representing the country in U-15 tournaments. There are others girls who are in the line.”

Not far off in Rathdhana village, the Devi Singh Yudhvir Rana wrestling centre is packed with girls in the evening inside a spacious indoor hall. This is one of the best equipped schools in the region, with two wrestling mats, residential facilities, a well-appointed gym, volleyball and basketball courts, and a traditional earthen akhada.

Not far off in Rathdhana village, the Devi Singh Yudhvir Rana wrestling centre is packed with girls in the evening inside a spacious indoor hall. This is one of the best equipped schools in the region, with two wrestling mats, residential facilities, a well-appointed gym, volleyball and basketball courts, and a traditional earthen akhada.

Just a few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable in Sonepat, where only the men in the family were free to go into wrestling, but not the women. Now the women here talk of their target—the Olympics. “I saw Sushil Kumar, and saw Sakshi didi win in Rio,” said Sonam. “Since then I have been working hard because I want to win a medal at the Olympics.”

Just a few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable in Sonepat, where only the men in the family were free to go into wrestling, but not the women. Now the women here talk of their target—the Olympics. “I saw Sushil Kumar, and saw Sakshi didi win in Rio,” said Sonam. “Since then I have been working hard because I want to win a medal at the Olympics.”

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