Too shy to even don the gloves when first introduced to boxing, Pooja Rani on Friday became the first Indian woman to claim an Asian Championship gold in the 81kg category after enduring two years of hard luck, which included a burnt hand and a shoulder injury.

Pooja defeated China’s Wang Lina in the finals in Bangkok to let go of disappointments that piled over 24 months. Speaking to PTI soon after her triumph, the 28-year-old could hardly contain her excitement.

“I don’t have words to express my joy. Two years of hardships have finally paid off for me,” Pooja said. “Such was my luck that in 2016, just before the Nationals [in October-November], I burnt my hand while bursting Diwali crackers. The burns took four months to heal. In 2017, while making a comeback, I sustained a shoulder injury for which the doctors recommended surgery,” she added.

Pooja rejected the recommendation for surgery because that would have meant a lengthy lay-off.

“I decided to go for physiotherapy and thankfully it worked for me. Looking back I am glad I stood firm against the doctors’ advice,” said the boxer who has now become a three-time Asian medallist and also has an Asian Games [2014] bronze. But I was alone with no backing. So it was qite normal to think I was finished. Thankfully it’s not,” she added.

Going back a few more years, Pooja recalled how it all started for her. “In 2009, in first year of college, one of my teacher’s wife suggested that I give boxing a shot because of my tall frame. I tried but in the first inter-college tournament, I felt too awkward and shy to even wear the gloves. I asked my teacher’s wife to wear it first. She did to make me feel comfortable,” she said.

Then there was the small matter of convincing her police officer father, who felt boxing was a sport meant for aggressive people. “Maar lag jaegi [you will get hurt]. That’s what my father said. He insisted that the sport was not meant for me because in his mind, boxing was pursued by aggressive people,” she recalled. “Took me six months to get him around with the help of coach from the Hawa Singh Acadrmy in Bhiwani, Mr Sanjay Singh. Now, he gets very happy when he sees my medals.”

Asked how she managed those six months in which her father kept asking her to quit, Pooja said, “I used to hide my injuries. If my face got too bruised in a bout, I would stay back at my coach’s place so that my parents wouldn’t know that I am hurt.”

“But it’s fine now. They understand and support me,” she said before rushing off for a planned dinner with her teammates on the biggest night of her decade-long career so far.