Updated: February 1, 2021 5:58:44 pm
Till she was 12, Nandini Salokhe was oblivious about wrestling. She played kabaddi for fun but for days together, Nandini – whose father died when she was seven – tried to think of ways to help her mother, who ran the house by working as a help.
On Sunday, Nandini, now 23, was crowned national champion in the 53kg weight class. With that achievement, she also emerged as the closest challenger to India’s top woman grappler Vinesh Phogat.
The wrestler from Murgud in Maharashtra dazzled Delhi’s Mamta Rani with her speed and pinned her while leading 4-0 to win the gold at the National Championships in Agra. Nandini was also the only gold medallist who didn’t hail from Haryana. Not bad for someone who once wasn’t even aware a sport called wrestling existed.
“I played kabaddi as a child, not at a serious level, when, in 2010, I heard about some scouts coming to a Sports Authority of India centre near my village for an open selection trial,” Nandini recalls. “I went just like that to see what’s happening.”
Dada Lavate, her coach, says ‘some similarities between wrestling and kabaddi’ gave him confidence that Nandini could switch seamlessly between the sports. The bigger challenge was to convince her mother.
“Her mother was reluctant because of the expenses. She ran the family of three with her meagre income but felt the diet of a wrestler would put burden on the finances,” Lavate says.
Somehow, he convinced her to let Nandini join the SAI academy. A state-level title in her first year served as encouragement for Nandini and her family but since then, she hasn’t had a lot to show for her efforts.
Just when it seemed that, like so many other wrestlers from the region, Nandini too would drift into oblivion, she won her maiden national title on Sunday.
The result means Nandini has now become the first back-up to Vinesh, who has ruled the category for quite some time and already booked a quota for the Tokyo Olympics. Nandini is aware of the gulf in class between her and Vinesh, to whom she lost during a selection trial. “Vinesh is much more experienced and mature. Right now, my main attribute is my speed. If I learn from Vinesh how to control a bout, it’ll help me take the next step,” Nandini says.
Sunday’s results (Olympic categories)
53kg: Gold – Nandini (Maharashtra); Silver – Mamta Rani (Delhi); Bronze – P Bidyarani (Manipur) and Pooja Jaat (Madhya Pradesh)
68kg: Gold – Nisha (Railways); Silver – Monika (Rajasthan); Bronze – Jaspreet Kaur (Punjab) and Nikki (Railways)
76kg: Gold – Kiran (Railways); Silver – Rani (Himachal Pradesh); Pooja (Haryana) and Kajal (Uttarakhand)