The struggles of six-time world champion Mary Kom or Jyoti Gulia – India’s boxing representative at last year’s Youth Olympic games – throw up certain recurring themes.
Fighting patriarchy and opponents in the ring aside, they also had to combat financial distress and parents who viewed sports with the same kind of disdain they would with the plague.
Tamil Nadu’s S Kalaivani, who was awarded the most promising boxer in the recently concluded senior Nationals at the JSW Centre in Vijaynagar, has a slightly different tale to tell. The 18-year-old is homegrown in that sense.
Her father Srinivasan and brother Ranjith are boxers too. It was a question of when, not if, the Chennai girl would don the gloves. “My father used to be a boxer and had faced strong opposition during his childhood,” Kalaivani told Scroll.in, when asked how her tryst with boxing began.
“I used to watch my dad train my brother [a national level pugilist]. I may have been influenced by that. When I was in class four, there was a cub boxing tournament and dad enrolled me in it. I practised for about 15 days and I guess, that’s where it kicked off for me.”
Impressing with her performances across sub-junior categories and backed by her family, a 16-year-old Kalaivani was representing Tamil Nadu during the senior Nationals. Despair, strangely, turned into a golden opportunity to make the next big step in her career.
“It was during the 2017 youth nationals. I was ill the previous night and I had lost my first match there as I was far from my best. I was obviously distraught but the next day, some of the JSW officials invited me to join them.”
Kalaivani was now exposed to state-of-the-art training facilities and gets instructions from seasoned international coaches such as American Ronald Simms, who was keenly watching from the sidelines as the wiry 48kg boxer clinched silver.
“Strength-wise and tactically, I feel I have improved quite a bit,” the soft-spoken Kalaivani says when asked what had changed since joining the JSW camp.
The strictly regimented diet and strength programme that she follows now was a far cry from the in-house training from her father, and sprint sessions at the famous Mint bridge in North Chennai. Later on, renowned boxing coach Devanand also helped a young Kalaivani hone her technique.
“During my school days, the teachers were against me taking up boxing. Things changed after I started winning medals. After that, I was rechristened as the school’s ‘golden girl’.”
Proving people wrong is a quality that has held Kalaivani in good stead during the nationals at Vijaynagar. She stunned Andhra Pradesh’s Jyoti Gorli, an opponent she had lost to three times in the past. Haryana’s Sanju, another familiar opponent, was outclassed in the semi-finals before going down to a split-decision verdict in the summit clash.
It was Punjab’s Manju Rani who walked away with the yellow metal through a split-decision 4:1 win. The bout was initially awarded to Kalaivani before a dramatic overturn from the referees. The bizarre turn of events left the young boxer crestfallen
“The final was agonising. I thought I’d done well till the last ten seconds, where she landed a few punches, which proved to be decisive.”
Getting a medal from Mary Kom on the podium, which also came with a few compliments, helped her overcome the disappointment. Despite the laurels that have come her way, Kalaivani’s family just about gets by.
“My father had to move to farming as we had financial troubles a few years ago. My mother helps him out as well. There is no question of saving money; we just about scrape through at the end of the month.”
Far away from tackling financial woes, a proud Srinivasan was cheering his daughter on from the gallery. Kalaivani was truly the surprise package at the event, and has now thrown her hat in the ring in the fairly big pool of young Indian talent.