Sakshi Malik not only opened the country’s medals tally account at the Rio Olympics, she scripted history by becoming the country’s first woman wrestler to win Olympic glory. Her victory added another feather to the Chotu Ram Centre here in Haryana, which has over the years become the country’s hub for women’s wrestling.
For the last couple of years, no Indian women’s team has left the shores without a trainee from the centre and at the last senior national camp, of the 32 campers, eight were trainees of the centre.
“Sakshi’s Rio medal has broken the barrier. Earlier, the target of our girls was to be in the Olympics. Now, everybody will talk about getting a medal in the Olympics. I hope the achievement will inspire girls in Rohtak and the state to pursue wrestling,” said Sakshi’s coach Mandeep Singh.
“We were expecting a medal from Sakshi didi and she did it. We also want to win medal for the country in the Olympics,” said Pinki, a trainee at the centre.
Women’s wrestling was introduced in India in the mid-nineties, but it took six years for it to travel 80km from Delhi to Rohtak. When the move was initiated in 2002 to let girls train with boys, former wrestlers and coaches had questioned the then Haryana sports department coach at the Chotu Ram Centre, Ishwar Singh Dahiya, on letting “goats stay among lions”. “Today, women wrestlers have put Rohtak on the world wrestling map,” said Dahiya, who was instrumental in introducing women’s wrestling in Rohtak.
Of late, the wrestling centre has become the country’s epicentre and statistics speak for themselves. In the last edition of the Senior National Women’s Championships, every fourth medallist was a product of the Rohtak centre. Of the 32 medals at stake, eight were won by wrestlers from the centre --- Sakshi, gold for Haryana, Nikki, Ritu and Suman, silver each for Haryana, Pinki and Rekha Kadiyan, bronze each for Delhi, Neetu, bronze for Chandigarh, and Sudesh, bronze for Bengal.
“Once not welcome at the Chotu Ram Centre, girls have now become its pride,” said Dahiya, who retired as district sports officer.
“As ours was initially a men’s centre, I was reluctant to introduce women’s wrestling and delayed their entry by two years. When I finally made up my mind, colleagues told me I was creating problems for myself as they could spoil the discipline at the centre. I stayed firm and the rest is history,” recalled Dahiya.
It started in June 2002 with Kavita and Sunita being allowed to train with the boys. By the end of the year, the number had increased to four. The next year, two of the centre’s trainees --- Suman and Kavita --- won gold at the seventh Sub-Junior Nationals in Chennai.
“Sunita came to me with her elder brother to seek permission to join the centre. She was around 14-15 years and had short hair. I mistook her for a boy and gave the nod. In the evening when she came with her friend Kavita, I realised she was a girl. As I had already given permission, there was no question of backtracking and that’s how the girls’ centre started,” said Dahiya.
Though girls were given entry, they were hesitant to train with the boys and took time to adjust.
“In the beginning, we did not wear wrestling costumes during training but wore track pants and T-shirts. In 2005-06, a competition was held at our centre and we fought in proper gear in front of the boys, and that helped us overcome the hesitation,” said Suman Kundu, who is from the initial batch of women trainees and won bronze at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
Entering world arena
With results starting to come in, perception changed and news of the wrestlers’ success spread to nearby villages.
Kavita became the first girl from the centre to don national colours in May 2004 when she represented the country at the Junior International Friends Championship in Turkey and won gold.
Suman was next in line as she justified the decision to introduce women’s wrestling at the Rohtak centre by becoming the sub-junior Asian champion in Kyrgyzstan.
“Kavita’s selection to the Indian team gave a boost to the girls and since then there has been no year when our girls have not made it to the national squad. For the last four-five years, there has been no Indian team in all age groups which hasn’t had a girl from our centre,” said Haryana sports department coach Mandeep, who is posted at the centre. “Till date, around 25 girls from the centre have represented the country.”
The biggest break came during the Delhi Commonwealth Games when Suman won bronze in the 63kg weight category. In the next edition at Glasgow, Sakshi Malik won silver in 58kg.
“Earlier, I used to go to the stadium on a cycle. Later, I was given a Scooty. On turning 18, I got a car and after the 2014 CWG medal, I got a bigger car. With results, incentives go up,” smiled the 23-year-old Sakshi.
Medals at national and international events helped the girls get recognition while jobs through the sport quota allowed them to be self-sufficient.
“Getting government jobs became a source of motivation for the girls to come into wrestling. More than 30 girls from the centre have got jobs in various departments, including Haryana Police, Railways, etc. Last year, nine wrestlers, including two girls, from the centre got in as coaches in the Haryana sports department and one girl got a job in the Sports Authority of India,” said Dahiya.
“It gives you a sense of pride when your trainees become coaches. I am sure what I wasn’t able to achieve, my students will. They will produce an Olympic medallist for the country,” he hoped.
To pursue the sport seriously, girls from nearby districts have shifted to Rohtak and village girls have taken up rooms in the city to save time.
“My village is around 12km from Rohtak and accessibility is an issue. To save time, I have taken a room on rent near the stadium so that I can devote more time to the sport,” said 19-year-old Pinki of Rituli village in Rohtak.
She has represented the country five times, including the Junior World Championships in Brazil last year. “I want to make the country proud at the world arena and hope my performance will get me a decent job,” she added.
Recognition and pride
International wrestler Rekha Kadiyan, 23, hails from Sewah village in Panipat and her passion brought her to Rohtak. Most girls of her age in the village have got married, but that is not a priority for Rekha, who has the backing of the family.
“We are pursuing wrestling because of our parents’ support. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be possible to pursue the sport at this age. They want me to make a name and win glory for the country. Other things come next,” said Rekha, who won silver at the 2013 Commonwealth Championships in South Africa.
Asian Cadet (sub-junior) silver medallist, Reena, 18, is good in academics. She secured 88% in her class 10 board exams, opted for Arts and topped her school in the class 12 exams with 90%. But wrestling comes first.
“When I was in class eight, there was a girl in our village who was an athlete. She was popular and the respect she got inspired me to take up sports. Initially, I took to running, but on the advice of my elder brother, who played volleyball, I switched to wrestling and joined the Rohtak centre in 2010,” said Reena of Singhpura Kalan village in Rohtak.
“As it was difficult to commute from the village for training, I took up a room near the stadium. Some of my relatives and villagers didn’t like a girl staying alone in the city, and even tried to convince my family to reconsider the decision. But they didn’t listen. My brother gets my meals from home so that I can focus on wrestling,” said Reena, a regular in the national squad in her age group.