When she first took up the sport, a teenage Pooja Gehlot faced the dilemma most women wrestlers training at akhadas face — whether to grapple with boys. Mixed training sessions are commonplace yet for someone entering an akhada the first time it can be a culture shock. This particular nursery in Bankner, North-West Delhi, was run by Anand Prakash Dahiya but the only trainees were boys. Pooja took the plunge.
The decision, not to be put off by the training tradition and take up the sport, has paid off. On Friday, she won a silver at the Under-23 World Wrestling Championships in Budapest. Pooja, 22, lost to Japan’s Haruno Okuno 1-12 in the final. Though the difference in points is unflattering for Pooja, what must be accounted for was that she was up against a formidable wrestler. Okuno, just 20, has already won two senior world titles — in the 55 kg in 2017 and in the 53 kg in 2018. A day earlier, Pooja was impressive in the 8-4 win over 2018 Junior European Wrestling Championship gold-medallist Zeynep Yetgil of Turkey. Gehlot was solid in defense against the Turkish wrestler.
Pooja says her upper-body strength gives her an advantage and it comes from training with boys. “Initially, when I knew that I had to train with boys I was reluctant. But I wanted to be a wrestler and my father always motivated me to not think about such things. Training with Greco-Roman wrestlers helped make by defence rock-solid,” Pooja says.
Gehlot’s father Vijender Singh and family were at their rented accommodation in Rohtak when the news trickled in about the result of the final. Vijender talks about how their neighbours back home in their village, Farmana in Sonepat, would advice him to stop Pooja from training at an all boy’s akhada.
“We knew coach Anand but the only problem we faced was that there were no girls at his akhada. But he agreed to train Pooja. At times, our neighbors in the village would say it is not right to let a girl train with boys. But we knew that wrestling is her passion and today’s medal is the biggest reward for us,” said Singh, who works as a lab assistant at a Sarvodya Bal Vidyalaya in the capital.
Pooja had initially gravitated towards volleyball but her lack of height meant she would eventually have to look at other options. Her uncle Dharamvir Singh was a wrestler and encouraged her to give it a shot. Dharamvir entrusted her to Dahiya who transformed the raw talent into a finished product. “We worked upon her strength and stance and it helped her game. It also helped her try the moves like Kalajang and Dhobi pat,” coach Dahiya recalls.
Pooja became the junior national champion in 2015 before extending her success at the Asian level two years later. She then shifted her base to Rohtak to train under Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik’s coach, Mandeep Singh.
However, a shoulder injury put a spoke in the wheel. “The only thing, which hampered her was a recurring shoulder injury. But we focussed on increasing her leg strength and working on the core of the body. If she remains injury free, she can be a formidable wrestler,” Mandeep says.
When Pooja trained in Bankner, her father was around as he also worked in Delhi. But once she shifted to Rohtak the family joined her too. Her mother Jagwanti Devi and Pooja’s three siblings and grandmother moved to city from their village. The family stayed in a one-room house.
When she recovered from the shoulder injury, Pooja won a dangal in Bhiwani. She gave the bulk of the Rs 10 lakh prize money to he parents as her elder sister was getting married. On Friday, on getting to know that Pooja had won a silver, the family recalled all the sacrifices she had made. Women’s coach Kuldeep Malik is impressed with Pooja. “Her leg attack and defense is very good and she knows when to take advantage of the opponent’s mistakes. She is also good in counter attack” Malik says.
Pooja hopes to follow in the footsteps of Vinesh Phogat, who’s her inspiration.