When Pooja Dhanda beat Helen Maroulis last week, it was the biggest win of her career. She had never beaten an Olympic and World champion before. But questions were asked if her surprise win over Helen was a fluke as beating such an accomplished wrestler was not usual for an Indian wrestler. Pooja answered those questions on Friday by beating Maroulis for the second time in two weeks and led her team Punjab Royals to a second consecutive Pro Wrestling League title in New Delhi.
The 24-year-old’s win over Maroulis is now seen as one of the best performances by a female wrestler in India. Apart from Maroulis, who is the current World champion, Pooja has wins over two world silver medallists in Marwa Amri and Odunayo. For her, this was a long time coming.
“I have waited for this day. When I beat Helen for the first time, it was not considered as a proper win. People were thinking I can not do it again. But all that will stop now that I have beaten her twice. More than that, I am big fan of her and have learnt many moves by watching her videos so it’s a special feeling to win against her,” Dhanda says.
Confusion prevailed once the bout was over. Dhanda wanted to tell Maroulis that she is her biggest fan and has been watching her videos for long. But before she could do that, Maroulis admitted that now she has become the Indian’s fan and will look forward to wrestling her. Both continued to fight over who is a bigger fan of the two. Ultimately, Dhanda won that battle too.
But the battle on mat was one of the best for her. After trailing 0-1 at end of first period, she came back and rolled over Helen to take two points. Defending her lead till the end, Dhanda won the bout 3-2. Her wins over Amri and Odunayo were pinfalls. It was Dhanda’s great mat awareness and defence that won her the bout. She did not let Maroulis get on top of her foot, a move Maroulis has mastered.
“I knew what she was trying but I did not let her do that move. In the previous bout she tried it. I didn’t try to pin her because she would have counter-attacked. This win is one of the for me because I was always aware on the mat,” she explains.
But Dhanda has had a career-defining win before this as well. Ever since her silver medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics, Dhanda has been regarded as one of the most promising wrestlers in India. She was peaking at a time when India had pioneers like Geeta and Babita Phogat in women’s wrestling. It was difficult for any wrestler to beat them but Dhanda did it. At the 2013 Senior National Championship in Kolkata, she beat Babita to capture the headlines. But that success was short-lived.
A year later, while training at the national camp in Lucknow, Dhanda suffered an ACL injury. Her knee needed surgery. While in Mumbai for the surgery, she had to stay in rent and financial crisis crept in. On top of that, the first surgery failed. Her knee was operated again. Fortunately, that was successful.
She had been to Mumbai before. When Amir Khan and his Dangal team were looking for lead actors to play the role for Babita, Dhanda was one for the two actors who had been shortlisted. The other was obviously Sanya Malhotra who eventually played the role of Babita in the movie.
“Those two years pushed my career back. It was beginning again. I had problems in my knee since that injury and even today I can feel pain. But with wins like this, it all goes. My father is so happy as if I have won the Olympic gold. These small moments of happiness are worth gold only,” she says.
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