Pooja Dhanda remembers getting lost in thought, as she stood on the podium at the Budapest Sports Arena. She had just been presented the bronze medal in women’s freestyle 57kg category at the World Wrestling Championships in October. That’s when she allowed her imagination to wander. “When I was on the victory stand, I started to imagine myself doing the same thing at the 2020 Olympics with a medal of a better colour,” she says. “My mind was focused on the Olympics because I got through such a tough draw (at the Worlds) with a medal. Yeh kiya, toh Olympic medal utna bhi door nahin. Medal nikaal ke la sakte hai.”
The 24-year-old exudes confidence after becoming only the fourth Indian woman grappler to win a bronze at the World Championship. Indeed, her pool for the competition in Budapest included a host of Olympic and World Championship medallists. But Dhanda had done her homework. Armed with a stronger leg-defence technique, she was bound to pull off a few upsets. “After the Asian Games, my leg defence was a weakness that had been exposed,” she says, “I lost most of my points because of that. So my preparation for the World Championship was mostly on countering leg attacks.”
The first great test to her pre-tournament efforts came in her second round match against 2017 World Championship silver medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye. The tall Nigerian, known for her swift leg attacks, had already cost Dhanda the gold, when they met in the final of the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast. Dhanda’s stronger defensive technique, though, caught her opponent off guard in Budapest.
“She tried to attack my legs a few times during that bout and it didn’t work for her because I had prepared for it. I knew how to counter it,” Dhanda says. “She was surprised because I seemed like a different person. I won that bout in the last five seconds. If you directly attack her, it won’t work because she can absorb it. But if you get a hold of her neck and push it down, her knees bend. She’s tall so it’s harder for her to balance. As soon as the knees bent, I blocked it, got a hold of her shoulder and toppled her over.” By the time she reached the last match of her repechage, against Norwegian Grace Bullen, she felt unstoppable — not even the shoulder injury she suffered in her previous bout against Alyona Kolesnik would affect her.
“I had mentally prepared myself that I’ve reached so far against these big champions,” she says, “and here I am just one match away from the bronze. I was very confident.” This was Dhanda’s biggest achievement, in a career that had lost two years due to injury. During the recovery phase though, her journey as a wrestler had reached a fork where she could either continue in the sport, or take the Bollywood route that sought to recruit her for the role of Babita Phogat in the Aamir Khan-starrer ‘Dangal’.
Dhanda turned down the offer. “I had an ACL injury and was recovering from the surgery. So it was a very big risk for my wrestling career,” she says. “I had spent 15 years of my life with no ambition of going into the movies. Wrestling is what I wanted to do. So for a field that I had never worked in, for a field that I had never worked hard for, wahan shohrat paane ka faydaa kya hai?”
In the bronze medal carefully preserved at her home in Gudana, in Hisar district of Haryana, she finds reassurance about her decision. And it’s in a silver medal, dating back to the 2010 Youth Olympics that she first found joy in her sport. Her return from Singapore after the inaugural Youth Olympics brought her riches that her family had never known before — the 16-year-old now had a car.
“It was a massive help especially when I had to train during the winters,” she recalls. “Practice was at five in the morning, my father would drive me and I’d sit in the back with two quilts and the heater turned on.” Her rise since returning from injury was marked by an unexpected win against Olympic champion Helen Maroulis in the Pro Wrestling League this year, and she went on to beat Geeta Phogat in the trials for the Commonwealth Games.
With her triumph in Budapest, Dhanda has confirmed herself as one of the country’s most prominent wrestlers. And her sights are now set on completing the triple — medals at the Youth Olympics, World Championships and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. “That’s the least I’m expecting from myself now,” she adds.