Navjot Kaur's triumph at the Asian Wrestling Championship marks the continuing evolution of a sport few women were allowed to enter until the 1990s
Six minutes. That’s all that separated Navjot Kaur from the gold medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Kyrgyzstan on 2 March. Standing in her way was Japan’s Miyu Imai, who was Navjot’s match physically, inch for inch and pound for pound. The Japanese grappler had already defeated the Indian in a closely contested first-round encounter in the 65kg weight category. The 28-year-old grappler from Punjab was determined to score the first points in the final.
She thought she had done just this, scoring two points in the second minute. But there was a successful challenge by the Japanese camp, and the points were overturned.
“When the challenge came, I asked the coach if we had won the points," says Navjot. “He said, don’t worry, you will have them soon enough."
“I’ve always had this dream," she says, “that I am standing on the podium staring at the tricolour going up, as the national anthem plays in the background. It was right in front of me. Almost there."
Navjot had won a silver in the 2013 championship and a bronze in the 2011 edition. In Kyrgyzstan, the elusive gold medal was up for grabs—and with it, the opportunity to become India’s first senior woman wrestler to win gold at the Asian Championships.
Just before the 3-minute mark, Navjot managed to score 4 points, using a move known as taang. Imai was holding Navjot’s leg and tried to push her out of the ring, but the Indian rolled her over, using the momentum to push the Japanese wrestler out of the circle. An unsuccessful challenge gave Navjot another point. The scoreline read 5-0. In the final minute, Imai won a point, but Navjot countered with another 4-pointer.
But the match wasn’t over. For the last 15 seconds, Navjot fought hard, holding Imai down. She could hear her coach asking her to maintain position: “Pakad ke rakh...chhodna nahi hai beta". Her teammates counted down in chorus: “Dus second...nau second...ek second". And then everyone erupted in joy.
When the referee blew his whistle one last time, Navjot rolled over and applauded, overwhelmed and in tears.
“When I led 9-1, I kept telling myself that I can’t relax," she says. “One mistake, and she could pin me. And it would all be over. That last minute was the longest of my life."
When I led 9-1, I kept telling myself that I can’t relax.... One mistake, and she could pin me. And it would all be over. That last minute was the longest of my life- Navjot Kaur
Women’s wrestling in India is still finding an audience. Its status has undoubtedly been enhanced by the success of the six media-friendly wrestling sisters, the Phogat cousins, who have represented India at major athletics events. Their journey—from wrestling in mud pits at akhadas across Haryana to winning international gold medals—is well documented. And their success story is so popular that the story of the first two, Geeta and Babita, became the subject of a biopic, Dangal (2016), starring Aamir Khan—it is one of the highest grossing Indian films of all time.
Three of the Phogat cousins, Geeta, Babita and Vinesh, have won gold medals at the Commonwealth Games. Together, they have won around a dozen medals in major events, though an Olympic medal remains elusive. The other three, Sangita, Priyanka and Ritu, are relatively new to international wrestling.
Another recent success story is that of Sakshi Malik from Haryana’s Rohtak district, who became India’s first woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal in 2016. Inspired by her grandfather, she started wrestling when she was 12 at the akhada at the Chotu Ram Stadium, Rohtak, where more than 100 children, including the Ahlawat sisters—Mansi and Khushi—train.
According to available statistics, India have won 154 wrestling medals in the 39 years of the Asian Championships, including 12 golds, across three events—men’s freestyle, men’s Greco-Roman and women’s freestyle. Seventy-four of these medals, including nine golds, came in men’s freestyle. In women’s freestyle, which was introduced in 1996 and in which the first medal came in 2001, India have 42 medals, including 12 silvers.
But there is a more revealing statistic that points to the rise of women’s wrestling in India. Since 2010, the men have won 19 medals in freestyle wrestling at the Asian Championships; the women, 26. This year, women won four medals (two bronze, one silver and one gold), while the men could only manage two bronze medals. There is only one male wrestler in the top 5 world rankings across 10 weight categories in freestyle wrestling. But there are four Indian women in the top 5 across categories.
Navjot believes the gold medal was very important for her on a personal level too. She suffered a debilitating back injury in September 2015, and had to undergo a long and arduous rehabilitation programme. She only returned to the mat in April last year, and began wrestling again competitively in August. Her form suffered: She failed to qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016, and for the Commonwealth Games that starts on 4 April in Australia. Now she is focused on getting to the Asian Games in Jakarta, in August.
“I was failing to deliver in crucial bouts," says Navjot. “When I didn’t qualify for the Commonwealth Games, I was heartbroken. People started to write me off. That gold medal was my comeback."
Inside the huge multi-purpose hall at the Netaji Subhash Regional Centre, Sports Authority of India (SAI), Lucknow, four blue wrestling mats share space with a couple of makeshift badminton courts. Thirty-five women wrestlers have assembled for a national camp that continues until they break for the Commonwealth Games. The camp will resume once the team returns from Australia.
Smiling down from posters on the walls are champion athletes with their medals: Geeta Phogat and Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik, and badminton players Saina Nehwal and P.V. Sindhu. The light from the halogen bulbs above the posters converges on the mats, bringing the wrestlers into focus.
They have a set routine, indicative, perhaps, of the narrow belt of north India they all come from: They kiss the mat, fold their hands and say a prayer before stepping on it. Head coach Kuldeep Singh bellows instructions: “Five minutes stretching, five rounds of running and short sprints, followed by core exercises and one-on-one bouts."
They do combinations of squats and push-ups, sprints, lizard crawls, backward and forward runs. There’s a lot of grunting and shouting, interspersed with an occasional smash from the badminton court. They land on the canvas in loud thuds and then switch to a combination of rolls, cartwheels and jumps, leaving sweat marks on the mat.
The women go back and forth, twisting and turning, putting each muscle to work. The grunts get louder when the core exercises begin. When the whistle blows to end the session, all 35 athletes collapse to the ground with a loud sigh of relief.
After 90 minutes of training, the women prepare for 30-second bouts. They sip on energy drinks, retie loose ponytails, shake the fatigue from their arms.
The coach asks a girl wearing a chain around her neck to take it off. “Yo kushti se, beta (this is wrestling, girl—no place for jewellery)," he says.
After this arduous, 2-hour training session, they break for the night. Some of the women rest on the mat, others hold ice packs to their necks, or massage their hamstrings. A few are still doing chin-ups and squats.
In kushti, mental strength is just as important as physical strength. Most of these women are battling two layers of patriarchy: to obtain sanction from their families and larger social circles to take part in this sport; and to bring their discipline into the limelight, escaping the long shadow cast by the success of male Indian wrestlers.
Babita Kumari is still training when most wrestlers have left. Her eyes have welled up in pain but her lips are curled in a smile. With one final grunt, she gets up, switches off the lights and leaves the hall.
Sprawled across 65 acres, the SAI campus accommodates over a dozen sports, including hockey, boxing, taekwondo, weightlifting and badminton. It also has a gymnasium, a weight training centre, a medical centre, a swimming pool, gardens and hostels for athletes.
Navjot is sharing room 114 with Babita in the Hostel for Elite Sportspersons.
The room is neat, spacious, with a double bed in the middle. There is a single-burner stove on one side of the door. Next to it is a bowl of milk with almonds soaked in it. There are bottles of dried rose petals on one shelf; Navjot says they add them to the almond milkshake.
The most striking part of the room is the stool on one side of the bed, with framed photographs of Sikh gurus and Hindu gods and a figurine of a laughing Buddha. Sharing space with them is Navjot’s Asian Championships gold medal, placed in a copper plate with a diya.
I am deeply religious.... If I’m feeling negative, or there are negative vibes around me, I start chanting Waheguru. That is what helped me come back from injury- Navjot Kaur
“I am deeply religious," says Navjot. She wakes up every morning at 5.30 to read from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy text of Sikhism. “If I’m feeling negative, or there are negative vibes around me, I start chanting Waheguru. That is what helped me come back from injury."
Navjot was injured before the World Championships in the US in September 2015, but kept wrestling. “In 2016, this injury was aggravated, and I couldn’t wrestle at all," she says.
“We felt sad when Navjot didn’t qualify for the Commonwealth Games," says Sakshi Malik. “She is a team player. She helps others even when we train. I am very glad that she won the gold at Bishkek. It was long overdue."
Navjot knows how important her colleagues are. During the long recuperation, she had her family’s support, but fellow wrestlers like Malik, Vinesh Phogat, Shilpi Sheoran, and Sheoran’s husband Narsing Yadav, helped her to stay motivated.
Athletes at the camp spend much of the year here: “They become like family," says Navjot. “Though we don’t have much time to chat, if we get a free evening, we go out for a movie or meal," says Vinesh.
She is a team player. She helps others even when we train. I am very glad that she won the gold at Bishkek. It was long overdue- Sakshi Malik
“We love going to McDonald’s for burgers," says Navjot. “And we love the coffee at Starbucks. Sometimes, we treat ourselves to pizzas too," she adds. Burgers and pizzas in the city of nawabs, famous for its biryani and kebabs? Both burst out laughing. A simple vegetarian meal, of dal and chappatis, with dollops of ghee, is the fare of choice. And, of course, almond milkshake. The last movie they saw in the theatre was Padmaavat, says Vinesh.
The wrestlers do desire fame, but they are enjoying their current anonymity. Replace the singlet with Indian clothing and they could be any group of women, relishing the chaat of Aminabad, or bargaining with shopkeepers in the crowded alleys of Chowk.
Navjot Kaur with the gold medal she won at the Asian Wrestling Championship.
Sometimes, typically on a Saturday, they gather in a group and gossip late into the night. “Vinesh is the joker of the pack," says Navjot. Sunday, the only rest day, is spent sleeping. “Many of the girls go out shopping," she says. “But I can’t bargain, so I don’t go."
Training is arduous—six days a week, two sessions (morning and evening) of up to 3 hours each, barring Wednesday and Saturday evenings. The 10 weekly sessions comprise mat training, exercises and mock bouts; gym and weight training; and sessions of handball or basketball.
In the small village of Bagrian, about 7km from Tarn Taran Sahib in Punjab’s Amritsar district, Sukhchain Singh’s family lives with his three brothers and their families, sharing a compound. Sukhchain, a local wrestler in his prime, encouraged his daughters Navjeet and Navjot to take up the sport.
Navjeet, 12, joined a government school in Tarn Taran in 1998, where she excelled in wrestling. Four years later, when Navjot joined the same school, the elder sister cajoled her into giving wrestling a try.
“I was a reluctant add-on," says Navjot, younger by three years and a few months. “I didn’t like people throwing other human beings around. I was frightened. But Navjeet insisted. She also dragged me to the mat a couple of times and threw me around. To my surprise, it didn’t hurt."
One day, Navjeet took her younger sister to a district-level competition, on the condition that she wouldn’t force Navjot to fight. Navjot decided to fight, and went on to win a bronze medal.
I didn’t like people throwing other human beings around. I was frightened. But Navjeet (sister) insisted. She also dragged me to the mat a couple of times and threw me around. To my surprise, it didn’t hurt- Navjot Kaur
“I was pampered so much that day," says Navjot, who was the second youngest of the 17 cousins that lived together. “I couldn’t imagine what they would have done if I had won gold."
The turning point in Navjot’s wrestling career came a year later, when Navjeet had to quit competitive wrestling. “She was battling several injuries and recurrent bouts of typhoid. The doctors asked her to quit wrestling," says Navjot.
“It was either 2005 or 2006," says Navjeet, 32, over the phone from Amritsar. “When the doctors told us I had to give up wrestling, I was devastated. I wanted to go for a second opinion. But we did not have enough money for another doctor." She decided to focus on training Navjot instead, living out her dream through her sister.
There were simpler motivations too. Navjot wanted to travel by plane.
“Rupinder (Kaur Sandhu, another wrestler from Tarn Taran) once showed me photos of herself in a plane. It looked fascinating. I asked her if she had to bear the expenses and she said she didn’t, the government did," recalls Navjot. “I told her I would also sit in a plane one day."
Navjot flew for the first time in 2008, to participate in a juniors event in Canada. She won her first major gold medal the following year.
Rupinder (Kaur Sandhu, another wrestler) once showed me photos of herself in a plane. It looked fascinating. I asked her if she had to bear the expenses and she said she didn’t, the government did.... I told her I would also sit in a plane one day- Najkot Kaur
But this was preceded by a number of challenges. The traditional Indian value system was probably the biggest hurdle: that these young girls were leaving home to play a “man’s sport". “We used to wear short clothes and fight with boys," says Navjeet. “People weren’t too kind about that."
But the parents supported their daughters. “It was a big deal for two teenage girls to step out of the village for a sport like wrestling," says Navjot. They had to cycle 7km each way to school, where they also trained. “We used to reach school by 4.30am and return after 7pm, training before and after school."
The family’s financial situation posed another challenge. Sukhchain, a farmer, has 4 acres of land, but had to take loans repeatedly so Navjot could pursue her dreams. News reports after Navjot won the gold suggested that her father had run up a debt of Rs13 lakh. Brother Yuvraj, the youngest of the three siblings, gave up his own ambition of becoming a cricketer, instead driving their tractor on neighbouring farms to supplement the family income.
News reports after Navjot won the gold suggested that her father had run up a debt of Rs13 lakh. Brother Yuvraj gave up his own ambition of becoming a cricketer, and took to driving their tractor to supplement the family income
Before the 2015 World Championships in the US, their mother had to sell her earrings to arrange funds, recalls Navjeet. Navjot would only learn of the debt later. “It hit me like a bolt of lightning," says Navjot. “If my family could not sleep at nights because of the debt they incurred so I could pursue my dreams, how justified are those dreams?"
Some of Sukhchain’s loans have been repaid, but his daughters do not want to speak of the rest. “Paying off the debt is my first responsibility," says Navjot. But she is yet to find a sponsor. “We have spoken to many people but no one has come on board yet," says Navjeet.
It is not surprising then that the athlete and her family keep some secrets from each other. “If there’s an injury, she won’t even tell me, though we speak every day," says Navjeet. “I get to know about it from her friend Shilpi."
They never tell me about their financial problems.... They keep saying everything is fine. But I get a feeling when something is amiss- Navjot Kaur
And despite the hardships at home, her parents keep sending the money Navjot needs.
“They never tell me about their financial problems," says Navjot. “They keep saying everything is fine. But I get a feeling when something is amiss."
Sports historian Boria Majumdar told Lounge in a recent interview that cricket became popular in India because the national team began winning. It is the same story with badminton. The consistent performances of Nehwal, Sindhu, Kidambi Srikanth and Parupalli Kashyap have taken the sport to another level. “The most popular athlete in India today after Virat Kohli is P.V. Sindhu," said Majumdar.
Women’s wrestling is no different. It has been in the limelight thanks to the Phogat sisters.
Wrestling was very much a male sport in India until a wrestler in Delhi, Chandgi Ram, decided to train his daughters, Sonika and Deepika, in the 1990s. Women’s wrestling became part of the Olympics from the 2004 edition in Athens. He travelled with his daughters from village to village, trying to encourage more girls to take up the sport. There was a backlash, and widespread disapproval of the presence of women in akhadas. Boys refused to fight with girls. Chandgi Ram took the insults in his stride, continuing his search for girls who wanted to take up wrestling until he came across Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former student.
Phogat, who has four daughters and two nieces, trained his daughters diligently but he suffered near-ostracization until his eldest daughter won gold in the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi in the 55kg category.
Chandgi Ram and Mahavir Singh Phogat changed the landscape of ‘kushti in India’, says coach Kuldeep, a former wrestler and an Olympian
These two men changed the landscape of “kushti in India", says coach Kuldeep, 45, a former wrestler and Olympian himself. “The mentality has changed over the years and a lot of credit goes to people like Master Chandgi Ram and Mahavir Singh Phogat," he says. “Ram’s daughters sowed the seeds. The Phogat sisters revolutionized wrestling. And then Sakshi won an Olympic medal."
India won two medals at the Rio Olympics—Sindhu’s silver in badminton was the other one. Kuldeep believes women’s wrestling in India today is at least on a par with men’s wrestling, and could even be of a higher standard. He says more girls from states other than Haryana are now taking up the sport.
“We are competing well in global events as well," he says. “Only Geeta qualified for the Olympics in 2012. In 2016, three girls qualified. Two came really close to winning medals. Vinesh got injured but Sakshi brought a medal home. Their success has ensured that more girls wanted to be like them, and, today, in Haryana, in almost every village, girls are wrestling. Some villages might have more female wrestlers than male…and that is a huge achievement.
“The Wrestling Federation of India hosts events in different parts of the country. We have been getting enquiries from states such as Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Odisha," says Kuldeep. “The numbers are still not great, but it’s a start."
He lays emphasis on the fact that the women’s wrestling team has its own training facility now. “Earlier, we were training with the men in Sonipat. But our girls would hardly get the time on the mat. It was crowded," he says. “Here, we have four mats and all other facilities. And here we can focus better."
Last year, the famous Swaminath Akhada at Tulsi Ghat in Varanasi opened its doors to women wrestlers for the first time. “Women wrestlers can’t be kept away from the traditional arenas any more as they have earned laurels for the nation by performing well in international wrestling competitions," the Sankatmochan Temple’s chief priest, Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, was quoted as saying in a Hindustan Times report in November. “They won medals and made India proud. This is responsibility of all of us to encourage them."
“Men have always dominated the sport, so it feels good when girls win a medal for the country," says Vinesh. The wiry 23-year-old won her first international gold at age 20 at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, in the 48kg weight category. Today, she weighs 50kg and lifts more than her body weight without breaking a sweat. “The federation is giving us an equal opportunity. Now it is up to us to work even harder and grab the opportunities and justify their trust in us," she says.
The Pro Wrestling League (PWL), the franchise-based league set up in 2015 to promote the sport, has helped make stars of lesser-known athletes. “Main bahut danger hoon (I am very dangerous)," says the harmless-looking Pooja Dhanda during a photoshoot. The 24-year-old, a former judoka, has the record to back her statement. In the 2018 edition of the PWL, she defeated reigning world and Olympic champion Helen Maroulis of the US.
“It is a huge morale booster, not only in women’s wrestling, but across sport, across gender," says Kuldeep. “You don’t beat Olympic and world champions every day."
Dhanda, who auditioned for the roles of Geeta and Babita in Dangal, defeated Geeta to book a place in the women’s 57kg freestyle competition at the forthcoming Commonwealth Games.
Mornings in Lucknow are cool, signs of a fleeting spring. There is minimal traffic on the Kanpur-Lucknow highway leading to the SAI centre. The city is slowly waking up. Most shops are closed, barring the occasional vendor selling breakfast.
Sakshi Malik is in charge of warm-up today, commanding the group to get ready. There are multiple medal winners, including Geetika Jakhar, 32, one of the pioneers of women’s wrestling in India. She’s one of the bronze medallists from the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon and the only woman wrestler who has been conferred with the Arjuna Award.
“These athletes today are a lot more focused and there is more attention on them," says Jakhar. She predicts that with the current team, India should win medals across all weight categories at the Commonwealth Games. “We should also win at least three medals in the Asiads," she says.
For many of the wrestlers here, the sport also offers a window of hope beyond a medal and possible Olympic glory: of a government job, and a monthly salary. On International Women’s Day, Punjab chief minister Amarinder Singh gave Navjot a cash award of Rs5 lakh and offered her the post of deputy superintendent in Punjab Police.
Kuldeep believes Najvot will do well in the Asian Games later this year, and that she has a good shot at representing India in the 2020 Olympics.
There remain a few weaknesses in her technique, but he is working on correcting them. “Her fitness and strength is extremely good. She just needs to keep her focus," says Kuldeep.
“I want to focus only on my game right now," says Navjot. The biggest challenge now, she says, is to fulfil people’s expectations. “People don’t talk anything below an Olympic medal.... But I have a dream," she says, again. “That I am standing on the Olympic podium, staring at the tricolour going up, as the national anthem plays in the background."