Even as 20 odd girls make their way into the training hall in the evening at the Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak, a couple of boys are busy cleaning the mats in the girls’ practice area. Moments into training, coach Mandeep Singh calls some boys to wrestle with the girls. In the last 13 years, since the women were allowed to wrestle in the centre, it has produced 31 women wrestlers who have represented India. Sakshi Malik is the academy’s most famous wrestler now but back in 2003, when she had walked in as a nervous 13-year old with her mother, it was barely a year since the centre had opened up for girls to not just wrestle but also to practice with the boys.
The then coach Ishwar Singh Dahiya had gone against convention, and overcome peer pressure, to have the girls wrestle with the boys. It was a decision that turned Rohtak into epicenter of women wrestling in India. And it had started off with a case of mistaken identity. Dahiya had thought a young aspirant who walked in with a request to be coached was a boy, and had agreed. However, he realised in the evening that the short-haired 14-year-old was Sunita, a girl. “As I had already given permission, there was no question of backtracking and that’s how the girls’ centre started,” Dahiya recalls now.
As a former student of Dahiya, Mandeep, the current coach, has seen the centre go from strength to strength. “We are perhaps the only centre in the country which has two male and eight women wrestlers in the senior national camps this year. And now Sakshi has become the only Olympic medal winning female wrestler from this centre,” says Mandeep proudly.
It has taken time and a lot of persistence from everyone concerned – from the girls to the coaches. “Initially the girls did not have proper wrestling costumes and would practice in track pants and t shirts. Then girls like Suman and Kavita won medals in Asian Juniors and we started the costumes here. The girls would also train junior boys and sometimes there were more than 50 boys listening to one girl wrestler,” adds Dahiya.
Sakshi’s growth has coincided with the rise of Rohtak as major power centre in the world of women wrestling. Kavita would become the first international female wrestler from the centre in 2004 but it was Suman Kundu, who brought the centre into limelight by winning the bronze in 2010 CWG games. In last year’s national games, women wrestlers from the centre won three gold medals apart from silver and bronze medals.
One of the reasons for the centre’s success is the fact that the male senior wrestlers act as a pillar of support for the 20 odd girl trainees. Senior wrestler Deepak Kumar, who won bronze medal at junior Asian Championships in Kazakhstan in 2012, remembers an incident which happened in 2013. “It was monsoon season and one of the girl trainees at the centre met with an accident after a fall from her scooty. All the male wrestlers came to her aid and some of us donated blood at the hospital too. They are wrestlers first and we believe that they are at par with us in every level. And that’s make us respect them. Some of the seniors do the expenditure for four girls, who come from weaker section of the society and things like these keeps us together,” shares Deepak.
Among the girl trainees is 20-year-old Pinki from Rituli village near Rohtak. The national junior champion for last three consecutive years has also gone on to represent India five times, including Junior World Championships. Pinki, whose father owns six acres of land and stays near the stadium, believes that it’s the discipline maintained by seniors like Sakshi, which keeps them going.
“Initially, I would cycle to the academy. We did not have much money for the diet and all but the seniors like Sakshi didi would make sure we had most of the supplements. Most of the senior male wrestlers also help in weight loss practice during competitions too and there is no hesitance in training together too. Initially, people would ask us to stop training but then coach Dahiya sir has been behind us and our medals have put all things to rest,” shares Pinki.
However, while the coaches and the wrestlers have shared a great relationship, there remains a scope for improvement at the centre. It’s not all hunky dory yet, says another wrestler Pinki Malik. “We train without proper water and washroom facilities here and Haryana Sports department should look into this. Sakshi didi has won the Olympic medal and getting proper facilities is the biggest thing we ask from the state government for her achievement,” says Malik.
For now, though, everyone at the centre is eagerly awaiting the return of Sakshi. “When Sakshi didi comes, we plan to walk in front of her car and would bring sweets from our homes for her,” says Pinki.