A celebration was being planned in the small village of Rurki in Haryana. After all, their very own Parveen Hooda was returning from Istanbul with a Women’s Boxing World Championships bronze medal. After beating Shoira Zulkaynarova of Tajikistan by a 5-0 unanimous decision in the 63kg quarter-final, Parveen became one of the three boxers to be assured a podium finish at the event.
Since her arrival in India, she has been followed by a celebratory hustle and bustle. From the rousing reception at the airport to the multiple celebrations in her hometown, a grand felicitation ceremony by the Boxing Federation of India and Sports Authority of India and finally, a meeting with PM Narendra Modi.
But on Parveen’s mind, on the day she was guaranteed a medal, there was something more important.
“When my hand was raised, I felt extreme joy,” Parveen said in a a conversation with Scroll.in. “A few days ago, it was Mother’s Day and I had been thinking about what to gift her for a while. I’d decided then that I’d gift a medal when I go back. When the medal was guaranteed, that’s what I thought... Ab toh mummy ka gift pakka hogaya (Now, mummy’s gift is confirmed).”
It was a moment she had been dreaming of.
“Papa also told me, ‘Ye hai asli medal! (Now, that is what you call a medal).’ I used to keep getting other medals but this is a medal that has greater value attached to it,” she added.
Parveen has come a long way since meeting her coach Sudhir Hooda, who initiated a sports development programme in Rurki when he was the sarpanch (village head) in 2011.
“Besides my family, the biggest support for me has been Sudhir sir. He had started boxing as well as kabaddi. He brought in several coaches, instruments and everything else... he provided for everything,” the 22-year-old Haryana boxer said.
Self-doubt is an issue that plagues several athletes, and Parveen was no different when things didn’t go her way early, but she persevered.
“I didn’t really question my decision to take up the sport because I always liked it, nor did I have any regrets but I started doubting myself when I did not get many chances at the youth level. I kept wondering whether I’ll ever be able to do anything.
“For several years as a teenager, I couldn’t afford to buy gloves. Over the years, things have gotten better for us and now I’m even taking care of my brother’s studies. I can credit boxing for a lot of things,” she added.
Parveen recollected the self-confidence she gained after beating world medallists and Asia medallists at the senior trials for camp selection in 2019. Two years later, she has carried forward the momentum from then as she embarked on the upward climb after with a gold at the South Asian Games in 2019 and now the bronze at the World Championships in 2022.
While she had the support of coach Sudhir, the backing from her family and inspiration in the form of legendary Indian boxers Vijender Singh, Mary Kom who were dominating at the world stage, her original interest in the sport came from a much simpler place.
In anecdotes, she recalled incidents in middle school where she found herself involved in classroom tiffs after she was appointed class monitor. Although she was good at her academics, she admitted to having a tendency of getting into fights. After incidents that saw her on the losing end of some of these classroom fights against boys, she decided to channelise this tendency in the boxing ring.
“When I was a kid, I was a bit of a... how to say it... bit of a fighter. Ladai hojati thi meri (I used to get into a fights). That’s when I decided, I would take up sports, become a boxer and beat them,” she said.
A few years later, after winning a medal at the Sub-Junior Nationals, she believed she had become strong enough to take on the boys in her class. But after being on the receiving end one more time, she recalled telling herself, “Nahi yaar, ye boxing se sahi nahi pitt rahe (boxing isn’t helping me beat them nicely enough).”
She might not have had the last laugh in those classroom tiffs but that medal at the girls’ 32kg division provided her with a sense of direction and drive. Forget the fighting, go all in on boxing.
“After the medal, my interest and focus became purely boxing. I decided that I want to take it up seriously and represent myself at the world level,” she said.
She not just represented India at the World Championships, but is now a medallist too.
“The kids in my village still tell me to fight those boys now but it was all as kids,” recollected Parveen with a burst of laughter, after returning from the world event.
Besides making sure that she has several more appearances at the World Championships, Parveen’s immediate goal remains to assess which weight category is most suitable for her as Indian boxers move to prepare for the trials for the upcoming Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.
While the exposure she got playing alongside seniors helped her learn where she stood in the world and where she could improve, the run at the World Championships also taught her that she still needed to focus on strength training along with her first attack because she believes she can take it a notch higher.
“Right now, I’m at 62-63 kg but I will have to see whether I must move down to 60 or up to 66 kgs and then maintain my weight accordingly,” she said.
The podium finish at Istanbul has ensured that the vision for the boxers is now stronger and far more focused for a podium finish in Paris in 2024. Parveen too, is driven by a similar thought-process: “The aim is Paris. The aim is gold.”