Nikhat Zareen moves towards Paris, one step at a time
- Gold in the 52kg and best boxer award at the national championship has got her a world championship berth.
On August 8, the day the curtains came down on the Tokyo Olympics, Nikhat Zareen shared a picture of her staring at a Paris Olympics countdown clock with the emoji of a gold medal and the caption "road to Paris begins"..."One Aim". There was fire, grit and pain hidden behind that post on Twitter because Zareen had tried everything to make the cut for Tokyo, including a bitter and prolonged tussle with MC Mary Kom which stopped only after the six-time world champion and Olympic medallist defeated her in a highly charged selection trial.
There'll be no Kom at the 2024 Games (she'll be overage since the upper age limit for boxing at the Olympics is 40) and Zareen has taken her first step towards on the road to Paris by bludgeoning her way to the 52kg national title on October 27 at Hisar, Haryana. Her dominance earned her the "Best Boxer" award as well as the right to compete at the world championships.
It's just the opportunity Zareen has been waiting for, in her impatient rise as one of the country's finest boxers, thwarted only by the rule of Kom in her weight class.
The 25-year-old Hyderabad boxer first came to the spotlight with a gold medal at the Junior World Championships in 2011. A shoulder injury in 2017 that required surgery threatened her career but she returned stronger a year later. She had an impressive 2019 winning bronze at the Asian Championships and gold at Strandja Boxing and pitched herself for a spot in the Olympics qualifiers.
“She is very determined to prove herself,” said her coach Emani Chiranjeevi. “Whatever happened prior to the Olympics has made her mentally strong and she is working with a goal in mind for the Paris Olympics. She trained hard even during the lockdown at home and then started coming for regular sessions working on her fitness and skills,” said Chiranjeevi, who was also a former India chief coach. “Though there are still some areas she needs to work on if she wants to win medals at the world championships and Olympics."
That she was ready for the top level could be seen in the way she fought at the Bosphorus Boxing tournament in Istanbul earlier this year. It was her first international tournament since the pandemic began last year, but Zareen won bronze beating two former world champions--Paltceva Ekaterina of Russia and two-time world champion Nazym Kyzaibay from Kazakhstan. She eventually lost to Buse Naz Cakiroglu of Turkey, who went on to win the silver at Tokyo, in the semi-finals.
After that Zareen trained at the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Bellary under a new coach, John Warburton of England.
“She trained under me for four months and we prepared for the competition (national championships). We worked on her basics, flowing movements etc. To be honest there was not much time she spent with me and it was her own skills that got the gold medal,” said Warburton, who is Head of Youth Boxing at IIS.
“She was in control from day one. She knew exactly what she wanted to do. There was minimum input from myself,” said Warburton, who was at Zareen’s corner during the competition.
“She has got a lot of potential. She is strong and she has got a great mindset. She is willing to learn. She wants to achieve at the top level. There is so much more that can come out of her,” said Warburton, who was a talent development coach at England Boxing.
Zareen will have her chances at two major tournaments next year—the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games are scheduled a month apart from each other. But at the moment, Zareen’s focus is only at the world championships.
“Even though there will be a long plan in place, it will be one step at a time,” said Warburton.