Success can be infectious. Geeta Kumari, 22, became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold at the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Delhi in which the Indian women's freestyle wrestling made its debut. Inspired by her elder sister's performance in 55-kg wrestling, the otherwise reticent Babita, 21, also oozed confidence. "Medal toh zaroor aayega, aap dekhna (I will win a medal for sure, you'd see," the tomboyish wrestler had told Hindustan Times late on Thursday evening.
The next day, she creamed competition in the 51-kg semis, pinning eight-time UK champion Jo Madyarchyk. She went on to win a silver, as Anita, 25, and Alka Tomar, 22, made it a hat-trick for India, winning golds in the 59kg and 67kg classes respectively. By Friday evening, the Indian women's wrestling team had bagged three golds, two silvers and a bronze (Suman Kundu).
The Kumari sisters from Balali village in Haryana's Bhiwani town, students of BA Pass at the Government Girl's college, have brought laurels to their hometown, till now synonymous with men's boxing (think Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar).
A decade ago Geeta's father Mahavir Singh, a former wrestler, introduced her three sisters and two cousins to the spectator sport.
Inspired by lifter Karnam Malleswari's victory at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, he went against
village elders, coaching his daughters in a male-dominated sport. This week, the same villager elders, clad in trademark dhoti-kurta, thronged the KD Jadhav Stadium and cheered for their girls. "We'd bought 100 tickets. Of those, 70 relatives and neighbours came to cheer for them," Singh told HT.
Not only is the village celebrating the glory the girls have brought them, earlier this year, they elected their mother Daya Kaur as village sarpanch. "We've become sons to our parents," says Geeta. She adds that their father is a strict coach, so much so that when any of the duo loses, they switch off the phone instantly to avoid his ire.
The disciplinarian, who makes the girls practice six hours a day, sat expressionless even as Babita pinned the UK champ in the semis and the crowd erupted. So, what does Mahavir Singh think of his champion daughters? "Geeta uses her mind and Babita relies more on her strength," he says. Don't the girls' ‘wrestler ears' — broken cartilage that leads to the ears swelling up — bother him? "Woh toh har wrestler ka gehna hai (It is every wrestler's ornament," he says, finally flashing a smile.
Chief coach Piala Ram Sondhi says Geeta has the potential to become a world champion but needs to work on enhancing her strength.
Anita, the other gold medallist, also from Bhiwani, won the Asian Games bronze in 2007. Born in a family of wrestlers, she took up the sport in her first year of BA at the Bhiwani Government College. "I first tried judo. But the people don't know much about the sport, so I shifted to wrestling," says the head constable with Haryana Police who will turn 26 later this month.
Anita admires male wrestlers Sushil Kumar, Anil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. "They work very hard and stay disciplined till the end."
Curiously, girls in Bhiwani refrain from using their maiden surnames as their families feel that they'd take their husbands' names anyway.
Nirmala Devi, another wrestler from Bhiwani, who won a silver at the CWG finals, also works with Haryana Police. "She lost by a few seconds," rues Sondhi. The cop, who likes to practice with the boys as it makes her feel powerful, is engaged to a boy back home. Is he a wrestler too? "No, he's a cop, like me," says the young wrestler, blushing.
Gold medallist Alka Tomar and Anshu Tomar have put Uttar Pradesh on the Indian women's wrestling map. Alka beat two-time Olympic winner Tonya Verbeek of Canada in the final. Alka's coach Jabar Singh remembers the time she was first brought to him. "She was 10, clueless and wore ribbons in her braid. Her parents said Alka was so energetic she ran even to fetch water. I saw the power in her."
Eventually, Alka plans to become an instructor. But government support for the sport is low. "The attitude is to keep the girls a step behind the boys," she had told HT in an earlier interview.
These attitudes are already changing with the team's success, says her coach. "When we began, the referees used to declare the girl a winner from a distance. Now, they hold her hand and raise it to announce it to the world."
Hard work and the home advantage helped the girls emerge victorious, Geeta said, "We practised an additional two hours every day. Sab cheer kar rahe hon toh confidence aur josh bahut bad jata hai (The confidence rises when everybody is cheering for you."