Before the Pro Wrestling League began on January 9, India wrestler Pooja Dhanda was just another player trying to find her footing amongst the likes of Sakshi Malik, Geeta Phogat, Ritu Phogat and Vinesh Phogat, who were already household names.

In two weeks, competing in the 57kg category for the 2018 champions Punjab Royals, Dhanda has set the mat ablaze with a victory over reigning world and Olympic champion Helen Maroulis of the United States twice, including a win in the final on Friday. She had also beaten world championship silver medallist and Olympic bronze medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye (58kg) of Nigeria and world championship silver medallist Marwa Amri (55kg) of Tunisia.

After such impressive wins, Dhanda is now considered a medal prospect in Commonwealth and Asian Games squad. However, the 24-year-old was on the verge of quitting the sport in 2016 due to an injury that saw her undergo two surgeries.

The injury

During a training camp in Lucknow in 2015 in November, Dhanda suffered an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tear during a practice session. “My meniscus was in half as well. I didn’t know how serious the injury was until the doctor in Mumbai said that I had to go into immediate surgery if I wanted to wrestle further,” said Dhanda.

The fear of surgery engulfed Dhanda’s mind as she was yet to make a name for herself. “I had not competed at the Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. I had not won anything worthwhile. We athletes are recognised only if we win tournaments and medals. I had achieved nothing. Plus people said that once a wrestler undergoes surgery then it is impossible for them to make a comeback,” said the 24-year-old.

However, her parents kept her motivated and positive through the trying period as she had to undergo a lengthy rehabilitation period to return the mat.

Verge of quitting

Dhanda’s problems were compounded as she was unable to find a physiotherapist in Hisar, her hometown, which left her looking out for them in places such as Delhi. However, she wasn’t able to find one, who could see her on a daily basis, which was important.

Then she received a call from her coach Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi, who coached her during her junior camp. “He was in Mumbai and told me to come there as he was helping out in the movie Dangal. I began my physiotherapy there for about three weeks,” she said.

Soon, she started her regular training but was not happy with her progress. “After four months I entered the state championship and lost my first bout. My leg extension still wasn’t up to the mark. I called my doctor in Mumbai and he told me to come in once again,” said Dhanda.

After inspection, results revealed that Dhanda had four to five blood clots in her knee, which was restricting her movement, Another surgery was required. “I started getting a lot of negative thoughts. Mentally I became disturbed and was sure that my career has come to an end,” she said.

The comeback

After she came out of her second surgery in December 2016, Dhanda was happy to walk again. “I was so happy when I started walking perfectly. I felt paralysed before that. Then I started working on rehab and then made my comeback with the PWL season 2,” said Dhanda.

She won two bouts back then but was happy to be back. She went on to become the national champion as well in 2017 and was selected for the Commonwealth Games. “Confidence is the key now after beating everyone. I want to win medals now for the country. I will give everything on the mat regardless of the result,” said Dhanda, who is aiming for medals in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. A medal in Tokyo 2020 is also on her mind.

“Last year I made my comeback with the PWL and I began my journey once again as a wrestler. I had trained with the Olympic medalist then, which helped me in my bouts this time around. Their struggle and motivation helped me train for a year. I have beaten the Olympic and World Champion gold medalist, silver medalist and bronze medalist, which feels great and the experience has been awesome to say the least. Now I am reaping the benefits of my training and it feels good after so many struggles,” she said.