Almost a decade ago, when the Phogat family introduced their eldest daughter to wrestling, their village of Balali in Haryana was up in arms: The elders were incensed at the idea of a local girl slugging it out in the mud.
Last Monday, nearly all the 2,200 inhabitants of this upper-caste Jat-dominated farming community turned out in force to greet Priyanka (16), Ritu (15) and Vinesh (14), who had bagged a gold each in the Asian Cadet Wrestling Championship in Pune recently.
The trio are the younger three of five Phogat cousins, India wrestlers and medallists all in various age groups. The two elder, Babita (20) — a junior world silver medallist — and Geeta (21), a former Asian cadet gold medallist, have also made it to the senior national squad for the World Championships in Denmark next month.
No one's quite sure of the statistics, but it's probably a world record of sorts to have five girls from the same home competing internationally in a single year.
Their 'father', Mahavir Singh, a former state wrestler, was beaming with pride. While Babita, Geeta and Ritu are his own daughters, Priyanka and Vinesh are the daughters of his dead brother, who he has brought up as his own. They all live together.
“Earlier, I would hear endless sarcastic remarks from people here for introducing my daughters to a mud sport,” said Mahavir. “But once they started winning, they became a source of pride for the village.”
It all began during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when the Haryana Chief Minister announced a cash award of Rs 1 crore for any Haryana player who could win an Olympic gold. Mahavir immediately stated that one day, he would produce not one but at least two Olympic gold medallists from Balali and introduced both Babita and Geeta to wrestling. “My third daughter and two of their cousins joined them and now we have five of the family's seven girls in the sport,” said Mahavir.
“As there were no girls in the village with whom Geeta and Babita could wrestle, they practiced with their male cousins. And in local dangals, they not only competed with boys but defeated them.” But it's been tough on the family. “Wrestling is my passion,” said Mahavir,
“But supporting five wrestlers isn't easy.”