She has a soothing smile and a calm persona, but according to those around her, Reetika Hooda is not much of a talker. Her work on the wrestling mat speaks volumes instead.
It has been a month since Hooda created history to become the first Indian woman to be crowned the Under-23 world wrestling champion, winning the title in Tirana, Albania.
The gravity of the achievement has finally sunk in, and the 21-year-old is back to the grind.
Hooda was not a firm favourite in the 76 kg category event, one that boasted a fairly strong field of competition. But come the final, the Rohtak-native would overcome all odds and beat former Under-20 world champion Kennedy Blades of the United States 9-2.
“I feel so proud of her,” her father Jagbir Hooda told Scroll. “That win started to make me feel like she now has a shot at the Olympics too.”
The Indian grappler, a bronze medalist at the Under-20 World Championships and senior Asian Championships, had ventured into the sport in August 2015. Jagbir laughed nonchalantly, as he recollected how what was once playful banter has now brought his daughter here.
Jagbir remembered how Hooda would often toss her elder brother Rohit around and tease him. The little practice on her brother back then has now moved to serious practice on the mat.
“Her brother is in the army now and even when he returns, they’re still engaged in that playful fighting... todam-todhi, dhakkam-dhakki, ghoosam-ghoosa chalti rehti hai. The pushing, shoving and punching continues,” added Jagbir. “Otherwise, she is very calm and quiet and doesn’t really talk much. “
In 2014, she had transitioned from handball to wrestling by virtue of her natural strength and physique. But Hooda was also keen to make the swich since she felt an individual sport gave her a better opportunity to stand out.
This year, she is focusing on transitioning from the junior to senior arena. With the 2024 Paris Olympics in mind, she made the move from the 72kg weight category to the higher Olympic weight category for the World Championships.
What makes Hooda’s win all the more impressive is that she also defeated 2022 Under-20 Asian champion Nodoka Yamamoto of Japan and 2021 Under-23 world champion Anastasiya Alpyeyva en route to the final.
These wins, in particular, are signs for the time to come, according to her coach Mandeep Singh at the Sir Chotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Center, Rohtak.
“Reetika worked very hard for this title,” said Singh to this publication.
“The best thing is that she defeated tough opponents in the process. It is a big thing to defeat opponents from Japan and USA to win.”
“She is always clear and does her practice with full focus. If she has figured out who she has to fight next, she will prepare accordingly and work on areas where she is lagging behind. She leads her life with discipline.”
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After the Worlds event, the 21-year-old immediately flew to Goa for the 37th National Games and continued her golden run there. Although she was expected to be fatigued after a gruelling campaign in Albania, she raced through every opponent, including multiple-time Commonwealth Games medalist Divya Kakran to win the gold medal in the 76kg category.
“It takes at least 10-12 years to get a medal in senior level but the way she is achieving already and the way she practices, I can tell that Reetika’s peak is yet to come,” Singh said. “She started fighting at 72 kg and has now moved to 76 kg, getting used to it and dominating there will take some time, but she will get there.”
It helps that Hooda has had that support from her coach and her family. According to Singh, the care and environment that her family has tried to foster for her has ensured that she is in a happy and secure place as a developing athlete.
“Wrestling is such a sport that you have to keep standing back up even if you fall,” Singh said. “You are bound to get hurt in this sport. And if she does get hurt, to care for her is also our job. You can’t be scared of these kind of setbacks.”
“I always tell her, ‘It is going to be your hard work but we are standing right behind you.’”
Interestingly, Hooda was not the only Under-23 World medallist in the 2023 edition that trained under Singh. Neha Sharma returned as the the silver medalist in the 55 kg category. Meanwhile, Nikita won bronze in the 59 kg category. It is not surprising that Singh, who has trained several world-class Indian wrestlers, is intent on adding some more to the pipeline.
“I have been training girls since 2010,” he said. “Many girls came here in between. Many girls won medals at the international level. Under me, Sakshi Malik was the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics. There were also the likes of Ritu Malik, Pinki, Savita and Mansi Ahlawat and many others with great potential,” he said.
“Now, there’s the likes of Reetika, Neha, Nikita,” he added.
It’s been a tumultuous year for the wrestling in India with the wrestlers’ protest and the national federation being suspended by the international body.
The wrestlers continue to play at the United World Wrestling sanctioned events without the Indian flag and the future looks uncertain as well. Simultaneously, old guards are facing a stiff challenge while new stars take the stage.
There still remain plenty of undeterred talents like Hooda, Sharma and Nikita who are willing to leave their mark on the mats, which brings back some hope that had been previously been dented.
Like Singh said, Hooda’s peak is yet to come.