A day before her competition, Pooja Dhanda was calculating the number of Olympic and World Championship medallists she may face the following day. After all, she had been pitted against some of the world’s top wrestlers in the 57 kg category at the Wrestling World Championships in Budapest. It was a heart-stopping moment for her.
“When I saw the draw, I couldn’t gather my thoughts,” Dhanda told Scroll.in from Budapest. “What just happened? But then I looked at it again. Slowly, my mind began preparing for the bouts because you cannot do anything. I thought – let’s go for it.”
Dhanda landed in the same pool as Rio Olympic and defending world champion Helen Maroulis, 2017 Worlds silver medallist in 55 kg, Adekuoroye Odunayo, the best wrestler of the year in China’s Rong Ningning, and grapplers from wrestling powerhouse such as Azerbaijan, North Korea and Russia.
Back home in Hisar, however, there was little doubt. Dhanda’s brother Sumit had informed his parents that she will win a medal for sure. So, when her medal bout started, Dhanda’s parents made sure they watched it.
“Before she left, we had a strong feeling that she will win a medal,” says Sumit, who works for a footwear company in Bhiwadi. “I told my parents to watch the bout. The girls from the neighbourhood streamed the bout on their phone for my parents.”
It would have been a regret for them had they missed the moment their daughter became the first Indian to win a World Championship medal in six years in the women’s freestyle.
Despite a tough draw, the 24-year-old returned home with a bronze medal, making her only the fourth Indian woman to win a medal at the senior Worlds. She defeated Grace Bullen of Norway 10-7 in the bronze-medal playoff bout.
“I was the last wrestler for India in women’s freestyle and I knew we have not won a medal. That fuelled me up,” says Pooja. “We don’t talk or think about it much but I know there are so many Indians waiting for a medal; my family is waiting so I just wanted to win it.”
Dhanda was disappointed with herself on Wednesday. After getting past Olga Khoroshavtse in the qualification round, she defeated Odunayo 7-6 in the pre-quarters with a last-gasp takedown. But her quarters bout against Rong was significant. Last year, Rong had defeated Dhanda 12-8 after coming from a 0-8 deficit. Dhanda wanted to avenge that loss.
“When she went for the attack, I was waiting for an opening to pin her,” Dhanda explains. “When I was on top of her trying to pin, my right hand was stuck under her shoulder. She overpowered me as my strong hand was stuck and got the pin.”
For Indian wrestling fans, the exploits of Dhanda are not new. Last year, at the Pro Wrestling League, she had beaten Maroulis twice and Odunayo once. She lost to the latter in the Commonwealth Games final in April, but she had prepared better in Budapest.
India’s chief coach Kuldeep Malik says that the way she wrestled, it makes her achievement more valuable. “This medal is at the Worlds. Even if you say that this was not [Olympic] qualifying or anything, a medal at the world stage creates psychological pressure on others,” he says.
After her loss to Rong, Dhanda made a strong comeback in the repechage. She moved past Alyona Kolesnik of Azerbaijan to wrestle Bullen for the medal. A four-point throw in each period of the six-minute bout gave her the advantage. But while defending her 10-3 lead, she stepped out of the area twice, which prompted the referee to caution her. However, she managed to hang on for the win.
“I have not seen Bullen much but she had a very good year and she was wrestling great here,” Dhanda says. “I saw that she has a strong upper body so I decided to wait for her attacks. I’m so happy I could defeat her.”
Malik says this medal is an example of how drawing out a plan in wrestling is important. “The draw was seriously tough. The girl from Nigeria is tall for Pooja. All we had to do was not give up her legs. Pooja defended strongly. Against the China wrestler, we were waiting for her to attack and then pin her. She almost did but once your right hand is stuck, it becomes difficult. Then we prepared for Bullen and realised her upper body is strong. It just simplifies your work.”
The medal in Budapest is a confidence booster as well for Dhanda. After winning the silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, she had a disappointing Asian Games in Indonesia where she finished fifth. Even she was unable to understand what happened there. “I am still searching for reasons for my performance,” she says. “That wasn’t even the top class of wrestlers that you see here.”
Lack of strength
Sumit, however, pointed out a potential reason for the dismal show in Indonesia. Having made a comeback to the national team after her injury, Dhanda has been on the recovery trail for long. She suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury in 2014 and returned to action only in 2016. After winning the 2013 national championships, she repeated the feat in Indore last year. But her brother says she is still not upto the mark with her strength.
“The knee is still weak,” he says. “If you see there is little defence in her wrestling. Lack of strength is the biggest problem and she will work on that in the upcoming months. If she can improve that her defence will also see some improvement.”
With off season beginning, Pooja will be returning to Mahavir Stadium in Hisar where she began her career and now is also a coach. Though she has slowly progressed through the ranks, Pooja now wants to take the next step.
“We had a couple of camps outside India and that will be the focus next year as well. I wrestled in Medved and we are so relaxed in those tournaments. We can try some new moves and know other wrestlers. That is very important and the next two years are so important as well,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “The draws are also not tough.”
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