Twenty one-year-old Nitu Ghanghas clearly remembers her first 20km bus journey from village Dhanana to the Bhiwani Boxing Club to train under coach Jagdish Singh, alongside fellow boxer Sakshi Choudhary and her father. It was a June evening of 2012 and she’d finish her first two hour-long training session to be met by her father, who stood waiting outside the academy.
“Boxing ne mere ko chuna (Boxing chose me). My father wanted me to be a boxer since that’s the only sport famous in Bhiwani and that’s why he took me to train under Jagdish coach sir. We’d all heard about how tough a coach Jagdish sir was. There was no relaxation for us in the first training session too. At that time, like any child, I thought about quitting but then seeing my father wait outside made me believe that I can do anything,” remembers Nitu, who will be India’s bet for a medal in the women’s 48kg event at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
While Nitu and Sakshi would start a strict coaching routine at BBC, which included two and half hours of training in the morning as well in the evening apart from attending school, it would also mean the start of an ordeal for Jai Bhagwan. Bhagwan, who works as a bill messenger at the Haryana Vidhan Sabha in Chandigarh, had to make a decision on joining his job regularly or accompanying his daughter to training daily.
Nitu being eldest of his three children, Bhagwan would first juggle his days between Chandigarh and Bhiwani before deciding about giving up on his job. “When I first went to the academy, I saw more than 100 boxers training there. I knew at that time that I had to be with my daughter to support her training all the time if I wanted to see her win a medal for the country,” he remembers.
Having trained the likes of 2008 Beijing bronze medallist Vijender Singh and many more, coach Jagdish was known to be a hard taskmaster. Having started training girls too at the academy, the coach would make Nitu and Sakshi train with boys as well, apart from sparring sessions with taller boxers.
“As a coach, we are always on the lookout for boxers who stand out in the crowd. When Nitu came to train, I was impressed by her natural ability to box as a southpaw and that’s what I wanted her to see as her strength. At that time, since the federation was suspended, there was a lack of tournaments. So I made them train with older boys and Nitu had this accuracy in straight punches, which made her excel in those sparring sessions. One thing, which still helps her a lot, is that she is a very introverted boxer. She would win a bout and ask me “Ab kya practice karenge, sir,” says Jagdish.
While Sakshi won medals at the state level once tournaments resumed, Nitu often bowed out early in state tournaments. It also meant that Jai Bhagwan had to decide about taking leave without pay to spend time with Nitu and constantly encourage her. A pelvic injury in 2015 meant that the father-daughter duo had to spend more than a month for treatment at a Delhi hospital and that’s when Bhagwan decided to sell the family’s car and also took some loan from relatives and friends to support the family. “My husband did not tell me initially about him taking leave without pay. He would ask his relatives or friends for money to run the house expenses and I got to know about it much later. The first thing I would say was that my husband has become paagal in his dream to make Nitu achieve something for the country. But it’s his paagalpan and Nitu’s willpower which made my daughter win,” shares Nitu’s mother Mukesh Devi.
A bronze in 2016 youth nationals would mean that the youngster would be selected for the national camp for the 2017 World Youth Championship and the following years would see the youngster become the world youth champion at Guwahati in 2017 apart from defending the title at Budapest the next year. The Haryana youngster would also add an Asian Youth title to her kitty the same year before a shoulder and wrist injury in 2019 would result in her missing the nationals.
With the then Haryana government delaying giving the world youth championship cash awards due to an arbitrary change in policy, the family had yet again to bank upon their savings. “Making it to the national camp meant that my father did not have to worry about my training or diet needs. But then he would stay in a rented accommodation in Bhopal just to motivate me. When I became the world youth champion in Guwahati, he was there to see me win and would show my medal to the entire village. When the cash awards got delayed, the only thing he told me was not to worry about anything,” says Nitu.
Having missed the chance to compete at the 2020 nationals due to shoulder injury, Ritu had to spend time at her village as her name was not included in the senior camp. It also meant that she along with Sakshi, another world youth champion, spent an extended time under Jagdish to train. “It was also a time for her to make the transition from youth to senior and staying at home in a way helped her. She relies heavily on her counter punches apart from uppercut and right uppercut. As her shoulder recovered, we made her box against much stronger and swifter boxers and it helped her speed,” says Jagdish.
Last year, Nitu became the national champion in the 48kg category with a win and this year has seen her winning her first senior international medal, a gold medal at the Strandja Memorial Tournament. In the world championships at Turkey, the youngster reached quarter-finals before a 2:3 loss against A Balkibekova of Kazakhstan, a loss she terms a lesson. “I would term Nitu as a boxer with one of the sharpest minds in the ring. She understands ring situations and knows when to take advantage of her being a southpaw and a long range boxer. Had she not fallen ill a day before the quarters bout in the world championship, she could have won gold in Turkey,” says Bhaskar Chandra Bhatt, Indian women’s chief coach.
Post the world championship, Nitu would seal her spot for Birmingham with a win over 2019 World Championship silver medallist Manju Rani in the final in the CWG trials at Delhi, which also saw her winning the semi-finals through RSCI (referee stops contest due to injury) against six-time world champion and London Olympic bronze medallist Mary Kom as Kom suffered a knee injury in the second round.
With Kom turning 40 this November and not eligible to compete in any tournament post that, Nitu rues the chance to score a win over her idol in a full bout. “My favourite punch is cross right and I have watched videos of Mary didi a thousand times master this punch. Whenever I am free, I see Mary didi’s bout and like any other boxer, it was my dream to score a win over her. Unfortunately she got injured. To get her shabhaashi after my win would have been worth any medal in my life,” says Nitu.
The last two years have seen Nitu also supporting the education of her younger sister apart from helping the family bear expenses of her younger brother, an aspiring shooter. Jai Bhagwan, who is nowadays facing a department enquiry over his regular absence from the job in Chandigarh, terms his daughter as the one, who runs the house.
“The cash rewards have meant that her sister’s full fee and expenses of first year of MBBS in Shimla are taken care of apart from the training expenses of her younger brother. She recently got him a new pistol worth Rs 1.5 lakh. When we ask her, what will she get for herself, she tells us that she will get a medal for herself and the country,” says Bhagwan.
As for Nitu, she knows where to place the medal once she wins it in Birmingham. “At our village home, my father has hung a punching pad in our living room. Whoever comes to our home is shown the punching pad by my father and that’s where he would put the medal once I win it,” says Nitu.