Boxing’s healing punch: Sarita Devi fights drug menace in her village through the sport
In 2012, after failing to qualify for the London Olympics, Sarita found herself spending time at her village after many years.Updated: May 06, 2019, 15:09 IST
As Sarita Devi, 37, stood on the podium to receive her eighth Asian Championships medal in Bangkok on April 26, a fond memory flashed through her head. She thought of her first international medal, also won at Bangkok, also at the Asian Championships, 18 years ago.
Boxing had saved her, and that first medal on the big stage was proof.
When she was barely in her teens, the Manipuri boxer was gripped by the idea of joining an insurgent group. She had come dangerously close — once helping some armed rebels smuggle weapons. Her village, Mayang Impala, on the hilly outskirts of Imphal, was then a fertile recruitment area for the insurgency.
“My village was a safe haven for rebels back then,” Sarita said. “Two of my school friends joined insurgent groups and I never heard of them again.
“And now it’s drugs.”
It was time, Sarita believed, to pay it forward. What better way but through boxing?
In 2012, after failing to qualify for the London Olympics, Sarita found herself spending time at her village after many years.
“I saw that children…in Class 7-8 had started using drugs. I felt very bad,” she said. “I was pregnant at that time. I went and met some parents, told them to send their children to my home, that I would start teaching them boxing.”
It was a humble start for one of the world’s most decorated amateur women boxer.
“Slowly, more children started coming, and we moved to a community hall.”
The ‘Sarita Regional Boxing Academy’ has now grown into a full-fledged training centre with 70 children, and has been running from an indoor hall at a nearby college since 2016. The centre has two boxing rings, but not much else.
Earlier this year, two of the trainees from the academy won medals in Khelo India — H Ambeshori Devi (gold in u-17 girls) and Thongam Kunjarani Devi (silver in u17 girls). Both have been inducted in the Khelo India Scheme that gives them a monthly stipend of Rs 10,000. The Army Institute of Sports, Pune, one of India’s leading boxing centres, has also taken four boxers from the academy under its wings.
“We don’t have much. So, when they start doing well in domestic meets at the junior level, we send them for tryouts at the Army Institute,” Sarita said.
Help began coming their way as Sports Authority of India officials visited the academy and decided to partially fund 40 trainees. The non-profit Olympic Gold Quest offered to provide salaries to three coaches and one physio.
A local NGO has also stepped in to help pay school fees for some trainees.
“Some of the boys and girls come from very poor families, and don’t have money even for school,” Sarita said.
Sarita’s husband Thoiba Singh says the recent success of some of their students has meant more parents are bringing their children to the academy.
“They realise their children will not get into drugs,” he said.
There are always setbacks. On Wednesday, when Sarita reached home after a two-month gap, she found that one of the boys had stopped coming for training.
“I was told he has gone back to using drugs,” Sarita said. “He is very talented. I will try and bring him back.”