The smile on Deepak Hooda’s face widened as he started to flip through the photo gallery on his mobile phone. He stopped as he found the videos of his wife, women’s 81kg boxer Saweety Boora, playing kabaddi.

“Yeh dekho kick maaregi… Ab dekho isko uthake phenkegi… ab bonus maaregi…,” he described as he shuffled between multiple videos of Boora competing at a local tournament in Rohtak.

Boora, according to Hooda, was a natural at kabaddi. She had the speed and flair to go in for raids, and the upper body strength to be a solid defender. But kabaddi was never her calling.

Later that same evening, on November 11, Boora took to the ring at the Asian Elite Boxing Championships in Jordan and came up with a 5:0 triumph over Gulsaya Yerzhan to win gold at the continental event.

“This feels very good,” Boora told Scroll.in over the phone from Jordan. “This was one of my dreams. The first is an Olympic gold, second is World Championship gold. I’ve won silver at the Worlds, but now I want gold.”

Saweety Boora with her Asian Championships gold medal (Courtesy: Boxing Federation of India)

It wasn’t long ago that the 29-year-old had given up on the pursuit of those dreams though. She didn’t make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.

“The dream was shattered and I felt what is the point of anything. I was very upset. Main depression main chali gayi thi. I decided to leave boxing. So Deepak told me, ‘alright, if you can’t get through in boxing for now, come to kabaddi, you have everything for it’,” she said.

As the sporting world came to a standstill during the pandemic, Hooda and Boora took it upon themselves to keep fit.

“The building I stay in has a large parking area, so in the morning we’d go for 10-12 km jogs. Then we’d run up the stairs to my 14th floor apartment,” explained Hooda. “There’s a stadium around a kilometre away from my place. We’d go there at around 7 PM at night and train for four hours.”

Boora and Hooda training together (special arrangement)

Once the lockdown eased, boxing had taken a backseat since there were no events lined up. Failure to make it to Tokyo though still irked Boora, so Hooda found an ideal distraction in kabaddi.

“He was always focused on me. He kept pushing me harder in training. After a heavy workout, he’d say ‘Itne say nahi kuch hoga, arre tune abhi kiya he kya hai (nothing will happen with just this much, you haven’t really done anything yet),’” she said.

He’d take her along to his own training sessions and started to coach her. He kept pushing her to improve to the point that after just three months of her playing kabaddi, she was all set to take part in the state trials for the nationals. Boora, in fact, described how some of the coaches told her to continue and she’d make it to the Asian Games kabaddi team.

But she couldn’t help shake off the feeling that something was missing.

“I was playing kabaddi well, but I wasn’t getting the satisfaction that I got in boxing. I felt that I could break into the Indian team and win gold at the Asian Games in kabaddi, but I wasn’t happy about it. I realised my love for boxing when I left it,” she said.

The 2021 Asian Championships trials were around the corner when she decided wipe the dust of the gloves she hadn’t worn for over nine months. She made the cut for the team, and returned home from the continental event in Dubai with a bronze medal. She was naturally a bit rusty, but there was a renewed vigour in the way she competed – something she thanks kabaddi and Hooda for.

“I had only trained in boxing for 10 days, but I felt like a completely different athlete,” she said.

“In kabaddi there’s a lot of lower body movement and it’s more upper than lower body in boxing. But now when I trained for kabaddi my footwork got much faster. One year later when I entered the ring, I felt like a different person. I was so much faster.”

There was a time in 2018, when Boora had played an important role in Hooda getting back on his feet as well. He was a part of the first Indian team that failed to return from the Asian Games with a gold medal – the men’s team won bronze.

“I felt empty inside. I felt my career was over and I didn’t feel like playing. I hadn’t practiced for a month since I got back,” said Hooda, who is playing for the Bengal Warriors in the ongoing season for Pro Kabaddi.

“Then she’d start to wake me up at 5AM and said it’s time to start training again. She’d say ‘you’ll only perform if you’re prepared. Don’t worry about the results, just make sure you don’t lose your discipline and work ethic’.”

The same happened at the start of the season when Hooda got off to a slow start.

“The thing is he’s taught me how to play kabaddi and I understand the sport now. So I tell him, ‘dekho, aap mujhe yeh cheeze sikhate the, ab aap khud nahi kar rahe ho, ye karo’ (you aren’t doing the things you told me to do).” she said.

“The same thing happens the other way around. He watches my bout and he says ‘Saweety nahi dikhe aaj.’ Sometimes even the best have to be reminded what they are capable of.”

And it helps that both are pro-athletes.

“We know the ups and downs athletes face and we’re there to help each other through it. We know how to support each other through it,” Hooda added.

Together, they’ve also helped shape up the sporting careers of Hooda’s niece and nephew. Boora took a keen interest in his niece, Preeti Dahiya, who went on to win gold at the Asian Youth Championships last year. Meanwhile Hooda has trained his nephew Parteek Dahiya, who plays for the Gujarat Giants in PKL.

Ever since they first met in 2015 – as chief guests at the Haryana Marathon in Rohtak – they’ve been the pillar of strength for each other. In July this year they got married and continue to support each other despite their respective sports not allowing them the luxury of being together as often as they’d like.

“A few days after the wedding Deepak had to go for the nationals and the PKL pre-season camp. Since then, we haven’t had at least four days together,” Boora said.

But here are two high-level athletes, content in the little bubble they’ve built for themselves.

Boora thinks back and laughs at memories of the time when both were relatively unknown, and could enjoy going out for a movie or coffee.

“And I’d love to ride Deepak’s motorcycle out in the winter months. He’d sit in the back and complain that it’s too cold. That was our little world,” she said.

That world has become a bit larger now. Hooda is one of the most recognisable faces in kabaddi, and Boora is now an Asian Championship gold medal winner. But there’s another thing they have in mind. Something they want to do together.

As Hooda put it, “Once this season ends, the Asian Games is the only target. Hopefully, Saweety will also be there. That’ll be quite something.”