Speaking after a practice session at Karnail Singh Stadium ahead of the World Championship at Qinhuangdao,China,a tournament that will serve as qualification for the Olympics,Mary Kom and Sarita Devi give several interviews. Watching from afar is 21-year-old Pooja Rani,slightly bemused by the fuss. But while the chance to take part in the Olympics will perhaps be the highlight of a decade-long career for the veterans,Pooja,the only other competing for a quota,is still trying to make sense of the opportunity,barely four years after she first put on gloves.
I was in college when I first decided to pick up boxing. At that time I thought it would be a fun thing. I didnt even know that womens boxing was going to be an Olympic event. Since then Poojas rise has been nothing short of meteoric,winning the National Games and a silver at the 2012 Asian Championships.
She is from a well-off family and hadnt played any sport till then so I thought she would quit soon,but I was wrong, said her first coach Sanjay Kumar,a former Asian medalist,who runs the Hawa Singh Academy in Bhiwani. Pooja persisted and eventually convinced her coach to field her in a state-level tournament six months into the sport. Her first opponent was then national champion Preeti Beniwal. Convinced she was going to lose,Sanjay went to train another boxer but rushed back in shock when told that Pooja had won. Right then I told her that she would be going to the Olympics some day, he said.
Jump in weight class
The Olympics meant Pooja had to decide on a category. With Olympic participation restricted to 51kg,60 and 75 kg her choice was narrowed. She wasnt going to stay in the 60 kg so she had to move into the 75 kg category.
The move would take her across five different weight categories and Pooja would quickly make a mark as a giant-killer across divisions. She beat Asian bronze medalist Neetu Chahal in the 2010 North India Championships,and then in the Nationals held in Kerala she secured her biggest upset,beating former World champion RL Jenny in the 63 kg category by a 16-2 margin. In 2011 she would win the National Games crown beating Jenny 10-0 en route to the title.
While the spurt of victories Pooja was racking up caught peoples attention,so was the lopsided margins she did it with. She is a very aggressive boxer, explained Sanjay. She doesnt like to get hit and can counter punch when she needs to, he said.
What Sanjay fears,however,is the fact that when Pooja realises the magnitude of what she is about to achieve,she will forget her game plan. Thats what happened to her at the Asian Cup in China this year where she returned with a silver. In the semi-final she cruised past Asian Games silver medalist Undram Erdenesoyol with a typically one sided 21-8 win but seemed to fall apart against Asian Games gold medalist and World Championship silver medalist,Jinzi Li of China.
Still it is a learning,process. We forget all too often that she hasnt been boxing for very long. I am hoping that at the World Championships she can make the most of that experience, he explained.