In Sonepat, women wrestlers breaking barriers on the mat
Till a week before the national selection trials for the Tokyo Olympics qualifier, Sonam Mallik was not even a starter. Sonam, just 18, had never competed at the senior level. Yet her coach, Ajmer Malik, knew she was ready—what she needed was an opportunity. Ajmer convinced the Wrestling Federation of India to give her that chance. Yet, even for Ajmer, what happened next was unexpected: Sonam went on to cause a sensational upset, beating the Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik to seal her place in the Indian team.
This week, she will be at her first major tournament, the Asian Wrestling Championships from February 18-23.
Sonam represents a bold new change. She comes from Sonepat district in Haryana, a fast urbanising area that borders Delhi. The area is famed for producing some of India’s finest international wrestlers. So far, those wrestlers were all men. India’s Olympic training centre for wrestling, located in Sonepat, is also meant only for men. Till very recently, none of the hundreds of akhadas in Sonepat admitted women trainees. That is now changing. Sonam, who comes from a village called Madina, learnt her wrestling at Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Academy in Gohana, a town in Sonepat. The academy was started by her coach Ajmer in 2012, at a time when not a single akhada in the entire district allowed women. Following in Ajmer’s footsteps, several centres have now opened their doors to women, and three new centres are exclusively female.
In Rathdhana village, a half-an-hour drive from Delhi’s border with Haryana, a maze of concrete lanes leads to Mamta Modern Sr. Sec. School. Five years back, Rajesh Saroha, a former wrestler, left his job with an insurance company to set up the women-only akhada here. Girls on their training run weave through the bylanes every morning. Around 15km away is another women’s centre, the Yudhvir Rana akhada, on the outskirts of a village called Kakroi. Another 20 minutes drive from Kakroi, and you will be at Barwasni, where there’s a third dedicated girls’ wrestling academy located at Geetanjali Sr. Secondary School. Over 120 athletes train at these three centres. Four girls from the Barwasni academy won medals at the U-23 Asian Women’s Wrestling Championships in Mongolia in March last year.
Ajmer’s centre at Madina village trains both boys and girls. A retired Army subedar and a former wrestler, Ajmer built his academy entirely on his own steam, investing all his savings and doing a lot of the construction work himself. The academy features coaching in two disparate sports—wrestling and tennis. The six clay courts at the academy came up as Ajmer’s son Ajay followed tennis passionately. Ajay made it to the India junior Davis Cup team. Ajmer trains the wrestlers himself, and employs a tennis coach.
“I have been a wrestler and I have competed in eight nationals. Earlier, there were hardly any facilities for girls in the district but now there are good training centres and youngsters are making use of the platform,” said Ajmer.
Three girls from his centre are medallists at the national cadet championships.
“These girls are fearless and they dream about winning medal at the Olympics,” he said. “Sonam is the first talent I came across a year after I opened the centre. She is not scared when she is on the mat and is always looking to attack.”
Sakshi, the pioneer
Rajesh Saroha, who runs the Khadkhoda academy, said Sonam’s victory over the famous Sakshi will spark even greater interest in women’s wrestling in the area.
“Seven years ago it was difficult even to field a 10-member girls team from Sonepat in a state competition,” Saroha said. “Now the scenario has changed. There is intense competition in each weight category and sometimes as many as 20 wrestlers fight for one place.”
Sakshi’s 2016 Rio bronze was itself a catalyst for change, as was the movie Dangal, released the same year. Saroha said parents started to show more and more interest in introducing their daughters to the mat. Saroha’s daughter and his son are wrestlers. Saroha’s niece Aarti won a silver medal at the U-15 Asian Championships in Taichung City in Chinese Taipei in November.
“We started with our own daughters, and after the girls started winning medals, the villagers have started taking interest,” said Saroha’s brother Balbir, who runs the school.
“Initially, there were few girls and they had to train with the boys. It did not go well with the villagers but now there are no problems,” said Balbir.
Now Saroha’s akhada not only has girls from Khadkhoda, but also from neighbouring states, for whom Saroha has built a hostel. It accomodates 10 girls, but Saroha has plans to expand the capacity to 60.
Sunita, a wrestling coach from Haryana Sports Authority, is also posted at the centre.
“Having a woman coach at the centre gives confidence to the parents that their daughter is in a safe environment,” said Sunita, who had trained to be a wrestler alongside Sakshi at Rohtak. She became a coach in 2014, and was appointed to Khadkhoda only in 2019.
“Earlier, girls had to go to Jind, or Hisar or Rohtak. There was not a single akhada for girls in Sonepat. But things have changed now, especially after Sakshi’s 2016 medal. It is in these small centres that you can find talent,” she said.
Girls more focused
At the senior intra-state championship in Hisar this year, the district finished second. One of the reasons why coaches here think concentrating on girls pays more is because they are more focused than boys.
“Girls are more sincere and they single-mindedly work towards their goals. They do not have distractions and in five years (of training) they are ready for senior international meets,” said Sunita.
Saroha had a roadmap when he opened the centre—which features a large indoor hall with three mats and salvaged weight training equipment—and the girls are ticking off all the boxes.
“My goal was to have our trainees in sub-junior international meets within five years,” he said. “Aarti is already there and representing the country in U-15 tournaments. There are others girls who are in the line.”
He has set his sights on Aarti competing at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The teenager has already sparred with one of the world’s top wrestlers in her category (53kg)—Vinesh Phogat. Phogat’s husband, wrestler Somveer Rathi, is from Kharkhoda, and she trained here in the village before the 2019 World Championships, where she won a bronze.
Aarti grew up idolising her wrestler uncle, and Saroha encouraged her interest in the sport.
“I have always liked wrestling. My tau (uncle) wanted to be an international wrestler but he could not,” Aarti said. “I want to live his dreams.”
Aarti has been living the exacting, monastic life of the wrestler since she was eight. It involves waking up at 4 in the morning six days a week for a morning training session. Then comes school. A siesta later, it’s back on the mat in the evening.
“We hardly get time for anything else other than wrestling and studying. Han, kabhi kabhi shaitani kar lete hain (sometimes we play pranks, of course),” says the class 9 student. “And sometimes we watch wrestling on TV. I have seen Vinesh and Sakshi’s fights,” says Aarti.
Three years back she decided to cut her hair close to the scalp.
“The hair used to come in front and it was irritating to remove it every time while wrestling,” Aarti said. “My friends asked me, ‘why did you do that?’ I said, kushti karni hai to kuch to karna padega (you have to make some sacrifices if you want to wrestle).”
When Aarti won the sub-junior trials in Lucknow last year and made it to the team for the Asia Cadet Championships in Kazakhstan, it was a big moment for the centre. It was also a big personal moment for Aarti to watch the world outside Mamta Modern School and Sonepat. In Kazakhstan, her first international tournament, Aarti was overwhelmed by the occasion. She felt transported to a different world—the big indoor hall, the lights and the noise was unlike anything she had seen before. “Everything was new for me,” she said. “I was nervous in the beginning. I had never seen so many wrestlers together. I lost my first bout to a Japanese girl.”
A family endeavour
Not far off in Rathdhana village, the Yudhvir Rana wrestling centre is packed with girls in the evening inside a spacious indoor hall. This is one of the best equipped schools in the region, with two wrestling mats, residential facilities, a well-appointed gym, volleyball and basketball courts, and a traditional earthen akhada.
“We also have a kitchen garden spread over 600 yards for organic farming,” said Devi Singh, a former wrestler who runs the school with his two sons and daughters-in-law.
The 65-year-old former wrestler takes pride in spotting the small piece of land last year in January. “A Delhi businessman badly wanted money and was ready to give it at a throwaway price. It turned out to be a good bargain,” Singh recalls.
The Singh family is into wrestling. His younger son Yudhvir represents the Indian Army, and older son Kuldeep Rana is an international wrestler. Both Yudhvir’s wife Samiksha and Kuldeep’s wife Seema are former national level wrestlers, and both coach at the centre. Kuldeep too is a coach at the centre, which has already seen one of their girls win a bronze at the World Cadets in 2019.
Just a few years earlier, this would have been unthinkable in Sonepat, where only the men in the family were free to go into wrestling, but not the women.
Now the women here talk of their target—the Olympics.
“I saw Sushil Kumar, and saw Sakshi didi win in Rio,” says Sonam. “Since then I have been working hard because I want to win a medal at the Olympics.”