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Dominating the ring

Bronze medallist at the 2018 wrestling world championships, Pooja Dhanda speaks to Patriot about the ups and downs of her career, and how she almost landed a role in Dangal

On the night of October 23, when most of India was fast asleep, a girl from a small village near Hisar, Haryana made the nation proud 6,000 kilometers away in Budapest. Pooja Dhanda, by claiming a bronze medal at the World Wrestling Championships, became the first Indian woman in six years, and fourth overall, to claim a medal in the competition. She was also one of the two medalists there, the other being Bajrang Punia.

In an exclusive chat to Patriot, the Commonwealth Games silver medalist spoke about her victory, an injury that almost ended her career, and a sudden chance to act in one of the biggest Bollywood movies of all time.

When and how did you start wrestling?
My father was an athlete and hence sports was always an important part and parcel of my family. It was my father who always wanted me to pursue some sport or the other. So, he took me with him to the sports complex, where I tried hands at different sports. When I started trying my hand at wrestling around 14 years ago, when I was 10, I somehow felt a passion for it and I made up my mind that I will continue this. I was always very aggressive, and somehow wrestling allowed me to channel my inherent aggression on my opponent.

How has your family supported you in your career?
My family has always been the biggest pillar of strength for me. For a girl in Haryana to pursue a career in any sport is a big thing. My family has never discriminated against me, and has always provided me with both physical and mental support throughout my career. It was because of my father that I came into sports, and he has always taken care of my health and fitness. My mother has always cooked food according to my diet plans and has never made a fuss about it. Even during my injury, when everyone gave up on me, it was my family who supported me through thick and thin. I am what I am today because of my family members.

Can you tell our readers about your injury and how it affected your career?
I was in a training session in 2015 in Lucknow, when suddenly I hurt my knee during one of the sessions, so much that I couldn’t even land my feet properly. Then after inspection, the doctors told me that my ACL was completely torn, and my meniscus was half torn. As a result, I couldn’t even walk properly, let alone enter a wrestling ring. The doctors asked me to conduct an operation, and only then would I be able to recover from this. But after my operation, around 6-7 months had passed and I still could not return to my training even after a rehab. Then I consulted a doctor, and he said that there was something wrong with my surgery and I had to perform a second operation to become fully fit. So, a year, after my first surgery, there was a second surgery. I lost two years of my career due to this injury.
Before this, I won a silver in the Youth Olympics in 2010, and was a bronze medalist at the 2014 Asian wrestling championships. I was on the rise when this mishap almost sabotaged my career.

How did you manage to make a comeback following this devastating injury?
I was left highly demotivated following this injury and thought I could never make a comeback. I had enlisted myself for the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) Season 2 auctions, but I never hoped that anyone would select me since I was out of action. A week after my second surgery, I found out that I was picked up to play in the tournament for the Jaipur Ninjas. I was happy that I got a chance but was equally nervous because I was apprehensive about whether I could go and compete at such a high level. I started training and after a high concentration rehab in Mumbai, I was prepared to enter the PWL. When the fixtures of the league were out, I found out that I was about to face the then national champion in my opening bout. My first bout in two years will be against a girl who has been topping the country’s performance charts for the last two years. However, not only did I give my best in the ring, but also beat her in the match. That victory gave me so much confidence, that there was no looking back from thereafter. I consistently performed well in the Pro Wrestling League, and then went on to clinch a silver a year later at the 2018 Commonwealth games, and now a bronze in the World Championships.

You also have had an interesting tryst with Bollywood. Can you tell our readers about this?
While I was wrestling, someone told me that auditions for the movie Dangal were going on, and they were looking for girls for the lead role. The makers saw my wrestling skills in Haryana, and asked me to come to Mumbai for the auditions. After that I landed in Mumbai at Mukesh Chabra casting company, where there were 20 other girls for the auditions. I enacted some scenes and mouthed some dialogues, but I never took this seriously. It was all just for fun, as I always had a secret love for acting. I always used to mimic different actors, but I never wanted to take this up seriously. So, after the first round of auditions, I was selected, surprisingly by director Nitesh Tiwari for the final round in presence of Aamir Khan. It was just me, Fatima Sana Sheikh and Sanya Malhotra, who were there in the final auditions in presence of Aamir. After the auditions were over, I returned to the SAI camp in Lucknow when I suffered my injury. After my first operation, I got a call from the makers that they wanted to cast me in the movie, but unfortunately, due to my injury, I couldn’t take up the opportunity.

What was your feeling when you won the bronze at the World Championships?
When me and my coach were scanning through the list of our opponents at the different rounds of the Championships, most of them were either Olympic medalists or previous world champions. But one by one I defeated all of them and entered the semifinals, where I unfortunately lost. But, there was still hope for a bronze medal. When I was about to enter the bronze medal bout, I knew that the expectations of people were on me, as it was a long time since an Indian girl has won a medal at the world championships. So, when I won the medal, after a pretty dominating match I was pretty ecstatic, as this was a medal not only for me but for all the upcoming female wrestlers who look to achieve laurels for India at a world stage.

What next for Pooja Dhanda?
The World Championship victory is now a thing of the past, as I look to achieve more laurels for India. Bringing home a medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is now my ultimate goal, and I hope that the colour of the medal changes from bronze to gold.