Sarita Devi, who inspired Mary to take up boxing, has always been overshadowed by her state mate’s accomplishments. But Glasgow provides her a chance to finally step out of it, write Jonathan Selvaraj .
Last Sunday, on her weekly rest day at the national boxing camp in New Delhi, Sarita Devi went shopping. It was the last break she would get before leaving for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where women’s boxing will be making its debut. She spent the day trawling the the bustling streets of Chandni Chowk, looking for something that would catch her one-year-old son Tomthil’s attention. Something that would hopefully placate the toddler who is not getting to see his mother enough. Conversely, there is something that Sarita wants, too, for the sacrifice that she is making. But it can’t be bought off the counter in the Chandni Chowks of the world. She will have to earn it, in the boxing ring in Glasgow: a CWG medal.
While it would only be the latest prize in a career which has already seen Sarita win the World Championships twice (in the 52 and 57kg category), Asian Championships four times as well as multiple national titles, it would occupy a pride of place in her cabinet — as he first medal in a multi-disciplinary event.
While Olympic bronze medalist Mary Kom is certainly the face of Indian women’s boxing, Sarita can justly claim to have a role in her success, too. Back in 1999 when women’s boxing wasn’t even a recognized sport, Sarita, barely 14 then, took part in a show bout at the National Games in Imphal. Mary, then a trainee at the SAI centre in Imphal, later acknowledged that she made chose boxing after watching those show bouts.
Indeed, the two boxers’ careers in many ways mirror each other. They both trained together under the same coach — Ibomcha Singh. At 29, Sarita is just a couple of years younger than Mary. Both won multiple world titles. Both have made comebacks to boxing after motherhood. Both are employed by the Manipuri police and have homes close to each other in Imphal. Yet Sarita knows there is something crucial that sets them apart.
Which is why, while one could argue about the relative importance of the CWG, Sarita vouches for its significance. “Winning a world championships is very different from winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games or Olympic Games. The last time the Commonwealth Games were held in Delhi, I wanted really badly to take part in them. This time, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance,” she says.
A long wait
The fact that Sarita doesn’t have a medal, or even had a chance to compete, at a multi-disciplinary event has clearly rankled her. In 2010, Sarita was seen as the frontrunner to represent India in the 51kg category at the Asian Games. At the continental championships earlier that year, Mary Kom had won gold in the 46kg category, while Sarita had won the 52kg class – closer to the Asian Games weight category. However, at the subsequent trials, it was Mary who got the nod. Sarita believed she deserved the spot and even threatened to return her Arjuna Award to then Sports minister MS Gill.
With the 51kg category seemingly sealed by Mary Kom, Sarita, at the end of 2011, moved up to the 60kg category (one of the three weight categories for women at the 2012 Olympics) in preparation for the 2012 World Championships – that served as a qualification for London.
“It was difficult. In the space of four months to move from competing in the 51kg category to the 60kg category,” recalls Sarita. “Thoiba (her husband) would be making sure I was constantly eating and getting my weight up. At the same time, I couldn’t suddenly move up to the new category because that would slow me down,” she says.
The move initially appeared to pay off when Sarita won gold at the 2012 Asian Championships. At the Worlds, Sarita began strongly beating the defending champion to enter the pre-quarterfinals. Another win would see her qualify for the Olympics. However, she lost narrowly — 25-22 — to Natasha Jonas, with the last two points conceded in the final thirty seconds of the bout. Sarita had lost her chance for an Olympic spot. In the 51kg class, Kom too fell short of a direct qualification but made it after the opponent, who beat her, reached the final. It was later learnt that Sarita could have gone to London as a wildcard, but was not nominated. That spot instead went to China’s Dong Cheng.
Fading to sidelines
The Olympics that followed of course were part of India’s sporting history. Sarita watched from home as Mary won a bronze. In the 60kg category, Mavzuna Chorieva, whom Sarita had beaten just a few months before at the Asian Championships, won a bronze.
“It was obviously disappointing for Sarita as a player but also for me as a coach. I certainly believe that she could have won a medal in London,” says Anoop Kumar, the chief coach of the women’s boxing team.
And so, while Mary deservedly became a part of India’s sporting history — with an soon-to-be-released eponymous Bollywood biopic adding to her growing legendary status — Sarita slowly faded to the sidelines. And while there was once some awkwardness between the them when both were competing for the same Indian team spot, it isn’t there anymore.
“Sarita and I have competed, trained together for more than 14 years. We have eaten from the same plate at times,” says Mary. “There are a lot of times when she has motivated me and times when I had motivated her. Because we have had so many similar experiences what we tell each other has added meaning. Recently she told me something that felt very good to hear. Only a couple of days ago, she told me how much she respects me because she too found it so hard to return after becoming a mother, and I too had returned to boxing after having three children. She said that she respects my heart. I too wished her the best for the Commonwealth games because I know how hard she has been working,” said Mary.
“When we were fighting for the same spot on the Olympic team there was a competition, but it was never personal. When Mary missed out on a place for the Commonwealth Games team, she was very upset but when we spoke later, we spoke about our kids,” adds Sarita.
Back in the reckoning
Mary’s shock loss to Pinki Jangra at the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games in Patiala means that Sarita will be the senior most member of the Indian squad. While there will undoubtedly be pressure, Sarita is confident she can adapt. “In 2012, when I moved up to the 60kg category, I was facing a number of boxers for the first time. There was a psychological factor as well. I was taking part in a new category and had never boxed any of these boxers before. So I hadn’t got used to their styles,” she says.
Sarita has now settled into her new weight class. While in the past, she had struggled to bulk up to the 60kg weight limit, motherhood saw her having to drop nearly fifteen kilos once she returned to the national camp six months ago. Reckoned by most observers to be the hardest worker in the national camp, she hasn’t lost much of her speed while her sledgehammer of a left hook has remained intact.
There have been improvements in tactics as well. “Two years back, I only boxed in one way. I was only attacking the opponents. In the last six months, I have been working on improving my counterattacking game as well. Now I have added some movement to my game as well. I am not just punching quickly but hitting with timing as well,” she says.
Sarita dominated the field in the selection trials and Anoop Kumar is optimistic about her chances of a medal, although he adds a caveat. “I think she will do well, but in boxing the draw plays an important role,” the coach says.
Natasha Jonas, who denied Sarita a place in the Olympics admits she is watching her. “We had a brilliant bout in the World Championships and I was the one that got the decision and that led to me qualifying for the Olympic Games, but she is a good fighter and will be tough,” Jonas was quoted as saying.
Sarita, however, isn’t worried. “I wasn’t too worried during the trials. I don’t believe that I had much competition in India itself. I think that I shouldn’t have lost to Natasha Jonas at the World Championships. At the commonwealth games, I think my biggest test will be against (defending Olympic champion) Katie Taylor,” she says.
But while Sarita, who will likely be seeded third, is wary of her encounter against Taylor, she isn’t backing down. “I have missed important chances before. I can’t miss this one,” she says.