HT Brunch cover story: Tough love with Sangeeta Phogat and Bajrang Punia

India’s newest wrestling couple, Bajrang Punia and Sangeeta Phogat, on 10 months of marriage, and the unwritten rule for two sportspeople in a relationship: the game comes first!
Sangeeta, 23, and Bajrang, 27, married in November 2020. But they have pretty much been kept apart since then, first because Bajrang was training hard for the Olympics, and then because of the felicitation ceremonies he has had to attend since returning from Tokyo with an Olympic medal; Styling: Avneet Chadha; Art direction: Amit Malik; Assistant styling: Tanya Aggarwal; Make-up and hair: Artistry by Anjali Jain; Location courtesy: Hilton Garden Inn New Delhi/Saket; On Bajrang: Pants & blazer: Raymonds; Shirt: Park Avenue; Shoes: Bata; On Sangeeta: Gown: Dolly J; Earrings: Soni sapphire; Heels: Bata (Hari Nair)
Sangeeta, 23, and Bajrang, 27, married in November 2020. But they have pretty much been kept apart since then, first because Bajrang was training hard for the Olympics, and then because of the felicitation ceremonies he has had to attend since returning from Tokyo with an Olympic medal; Styling: Avneet Chadha; Art direction: Amit Malik; Assistant styling: Tanya Aggarwal; Make-up and hair: Artistry by Anjali Jain; Location courtesy: Hilton Garden Inn New Delhi/Saket; On Bajrang: Pants & blazer: Raymonds; Shirt: Park Avenue; Shoes: Bata; On Sangeeta: Gown: Dolly J; Earrings: Soni sapphire; Heels: Bata (Hari Nair)
Published on Oct 02, 2021 10:30 PM IST
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Bajrang Punia, winner of the Olympic bronze medal in wrestling, is delighted. His wife, wrestler Sangeeta Phogat, who had been out of action for the last four years, has just qualified for the World Championships in Norway. Since he’s been Sangeeta’s coach of late, her selection in the trials is a victory for him, too.

“I’m the only Indian wrestler with three World Championship medals, but I’m not participating this time as I’m in rehab. But I’m happy and excited that Sangeeta has cleared the trials. Even though I will miss the chance for a medal, I’m confident Sangeeta will come back with one,” says Bajrang proudly.

Sangeeta, 23, and Bajrang, 27, married in November 2020. But they have pretty much been kept apart since then, first because Bajrang was training hard for the Olympics, and then because of the felicitation ceremonies he has had to attend since returning from Tokyo with an Olympic medal.

“I’m actually looking forward to spending time with him here for your interview and shoot because we have hardly had a moment to be together since our wedding,” Sangeeta says wryly, patting Bajrang on the cheek.

On the mats

The chemistry between the two wrestlers is so visible you wonder if they were childhood sweethearts. But no. Though they had been acquaintances for some years—he a well-known wrestler, and she, the youngest of the famous wrestling Phogat sisters—they only began to getting to know each other better in 2017 during the Pro Wrestling League.

Though they had been acquaintances for some years, they only began to getting to know each other better in 2017 during the Pro Wrestling League; On Sangeeta: Lehanga: Dolly J; Bangles & earrings: Khanna Jewellers (stylist’s own); Neckpiece: Orbit Jewellery (Stylist’s own); Heels: Bata; On Bajrang: Black kurta: Kunal Rawal; Pants: Raymonds; Shoes: Bata (Hari Nair)
Though they had been acquaintances for some years, they only began to getting to know each other better in 2017 during the Pro Wrestling League; On Sangeeta: Lehanga: Dolly J; Bangles & earrings: Khanna Jewellers (stylist’s own); Neckpiece: Orbit Jewellery (Stylist’s own); Heels: Bata; On Bajrang: Black kurta: Kunal Rawal; Pants: Raymonds; Shoes: Bata (Hari Nair)

“In 2017, both of us played for the same franchisee in the Pro Wrestling League. Since our matches were scheduled together, we spent time with each other,” says Sangeeta.

She grins. “And since we only had one wrestling mat at the hotel, we trained together too, which helped bring us closer,” she reveals.

Bajrang was attracted to Sangeeta’s sweet and charming personality, he says. “Her attitude and behaviour are lovely,” he says. “I love that she is always happy.”

After the season ended, Sangeeta and Bajrang stayed in touch, meeting often when they participated in various championships.

“I enjoyed talking to him and his ability to make me laugh attracted me. He is loyal and honest, which I really like. He is the same person behind your back as when he’s with you, which means a lot to me,” says Sangeeta.

When Sangeeta was injured and they couldn’t meet, the two spent hours talking on the phone. “During this time, Bajrang confessed his feelings for me. Initially, I thought it was a joke,” says Sangeeta. “But he made me believe his feelings were genuine.”

Bajrang grins. “I was a little nervous but I knew Sangeeta had feelings for me as well, so I just went with my gut feeling and asked for marriage.”

Athletes first

When the couple informed their families about their decision, everyone was excited.

“Bajrang’s family has known me for a long time,” says Sangeeta. “My sisters Babita and Geeta are friends with Bajrang and knew he would be the perfect match for me. Moreover, my family has a history of marrying wrestlers, so Bajrang was perfect. Being together with another wrestler gives you lots of advantages. You can help each other improve your game and also become training partners.”

Their initial plan was to marry after the 2020 Olympics. But when the pandemic led the Olympics to be postponed and revealed the uncertainty of life and the importance of family and relationships, Bajrang and Sangeeta decided to marry as soon as possible; On Bajrang: Kurta set and jacket: House of Anita Dongre; Shoes: Bata; On Sangeeta: Plazo and top (suit set): Bhumika Sharma; Heels: Neutraliser (Hari Nair)
Their initial plan was to marry after the 2020 Olympics. But when the pandemic led the Olympics to be postponed and revealed the uncertainty of life and the importance of family and relationships, Bajrang and Sangeeta decided to marry as soon as possible; On Bajrang: Kurta set and jacket: House of Anita Dongre; Shoes: Bata; On Sangeeta: Plazo and top (suit set): Bhumika Sharma; Heels: Neutraliser (Hari Nair)

Bajrang had never thought about the kind of person he would marry. “But what can you say about love!” he laughs. “It was sheer luck that I fell for Sangeeta, a professional wrestler like me. This gives us so much in common.”  

Their initial plan was to marry after the 2020 Olympics. But when the pandemic led the Olympics to be postponed and revealed the uncertainty of life and the importance of family and relationships, Bajrang and Sangeeta decided to marry as soon as possible. So, in November 2020, they tied the knot in a simple ceremony at their village.  

But there was no honeymoon after that. No time to settle into a new home. Almost as soon as the ceremonies ended, Bajrang returned to training. “We’re sportspeople, not a normal couple,” explains Bajrang. “For us, training and achieving goals are important.”

So, their newly-wedded life played out in a completely different way. “When your partner is in the same profession as you, you exchange ideas with each other. Your biggest critic is right there with you,” chuckles Bajrang. “You can discuss the game and seek help from each other to improve your style. Our training time is the best time for us as a couple.”

The two of them are not actually in each other’s pockets all the time—or even some of the time. “My training camp is in Lucknow and his is in Sonipat, so we don’t have much time together,” says Sangeeta. “Whenever we get the chance, we go out for a meal. Unfortunately, we can’t go on vacations together because our competitions happen back-to-back and we can’t miss even a day of training. But we don’t mind. We are focussed on being athletes.”

All about trust

Three years ago, Sangeeta injured her knee so badly that she was out of her sport for a long time. When she finally returned to it after medical clearance, her husband was right there to motivate and mentor her through it.

“I salute her resilience,” says Bajrang of Sangeeta’s return. “Despite all the odds, she kept training and now has qualified for the World Championships. I was always by her side. As a sportsperson myself, I could gauge her situation and we talked extensively about training and rehab. She recently completed her rehab and even though I was away for my tournaments, I checked her progress and motivated her to keep going.”

Other sportspersons who are together
Other sportspersons who are together

This, perhaps, is the beauty and uniqueness of their relationship. “We are dedicated to our sport because whatever we are today is because of wrestling. So, though we can’t enjoy occasions like normal couples, we deal with it like professionals,” says Bajrang.

However, it isn’t all work and no play. Occasionally, Sangeeta and Bajrang go all domestic. “We don’t forget the fact that we are husband and wife and that adds an element of fun. During training, I may have to listen to him, but off training, he has to listen to me,” grins Sangeeta.  

So, is Sangeeta the boss at home? “Any married man must align himself to the fact that at home there can only be one boss

and that is the wife. This is a universal truth that everyone needs to accept,” chuckles Bajrang.

“Bajrang is not the typical male of the house,” says Sangeeta, getting serious. “He helps me with cooking and managing things.”

Bajrang has no use for the patriarchal ideas of society. “Sangeeta cooks really well and I love her parathas. But I also cook decently, though definitely not better than her,” he says.

Of course, they fight occasionally, and while Bajrang laughs as he claims that the word ‘sorry’ does not exist in any woman’s vocabulary, he is also aware that this is a poor joke. “She is always willing to listen and sort out a matter. I love that aspect of her the most,” says Bajrang honestly.

Sangeeta, however, believes that Bajrang is always the first to apologise as he thinks she’s still a kid. “He explains things to me like one would do to a child. But there are rarely any misunderstandings between us,” she says.

So, is there a recipe for a successful relationship? “It’s all about trust. We have to back each other’s decisions and stay faithful to one other. That’s the only way one can sustain a successful relationship,” says Bajrang .

Adds Sangeeta, “If you believe in yourself and your partner, you will have a long-lasting relationship, irrespective of the problems and difficulties you face.”

From HT Brunch, October 3, 2021

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Tuesday, October 19, 2021