Wrestler Nisha Dahiya remembers the day when she received the call from National Anti-Doping Agency four years ago. She was about to leave her home in Adiana village in Panipat to catch a flight from Delhi. She was to sign a new sponsorship deal, her first, and was about to get a job in Railways.
That did not happen. Instead, she travelled to Nada office where she received a letter of her four-year ban which marked an abrupt end to a promising wrestling career.
Dahiya had won medals at cadet level and a bronze at the National Championships in 2015. And now, four years later, she used the same competition to announce her comeback and she did that by winning the gold medal in the 65kg in Jalandhar last week.
“I went home with that letter [four years back] and thought that everything is finished,” Dahiya told Scroll.in. “I was banned for four years which ended six months back. I was winning medals before the bans. I thought ‘what will I do and I’ll have to leave the sport’.”
In October, she had won the U-23 National Championships gold medal as well but was not satisfied with an age-level triumph.
“I was waiting for this day and wanted to give 100 percent,” she said. “In the last two years, I have changed a lot and this is a huge achievement for me. U-23 Nationals was good but there was no camp. The senior national camp is important and I will go back there after four years which is more satisfying. I was thrown out of the same camp.”
Dahiya had tested positive for meldonium, a drug which was banned by World Anti-Doping Agency in 2016 — the same drug that got tennis superstar Maria Sharapova in trouble. Dahiya was tested after winning the bronze medal in 2015.
The 22-year-old cursed herself for the mistake and slowly drifted away from the sport. Things were made worse as she said her friends parted ways with her.
“For a couple of months I thought that leaving the sport is the best,” she said. “Everyone was saying that you won’t be allowed to wrestle now. I did not know anything about doping. My friends cut off from me and said bad things about me like don’t drink water with her or train with her.”
Younger among two sisters, Dahiya was desperate to find motivation to go back to the wrestling hall. Her parents were the first to support her to not stop wrestling. They took her to the akhada and asked her to start wrestling again.
“They wanted me to continue,” she said. “They said take as much as time it takes to get back. I really have a supporting family and relatives.”
No one in her family had wrestled before. But Dahiya was interested in sports which saw her travel to Nidani Sports Hostel in Jind. She practice wrestling for two years before shifting base to Satyawan akhada in Rohtak.
“I was in sports hostel in Nidani when I was in eighth standard,” she said. “I learnt basic wrestling there before coming to Rohtak and then I decided to train seriously. I started understanding the sport and what medals mean.”
Two years later, she won the gold medal at the cadet National Championships in 2014 in Srinagar and repeated the feat next year. Her first international medal came in 2014 when she returned with a bronze in the 49kg category from Asian Championships. She won a silver in 60kg category next year.
Sakshi Malik’s role
Training in the Rohtak akhada also meant she was around Rio Olympics bronze-medallist Sakshi Malik. The akhada is run by Malik’s father-in-law Satyawan. Malik, a wrestler in 62 kg category, trained with Dahiya and even took her to the national camp when she was banned.
“I am very close to her since the ban,” Dahiya said. “I train with her in the akhada and even in camps as a training partner.”
“When I was down on confidence, she took me to the camp with her in Lucknow thinking that I will cheer up. You are generally depressed at home so she helped me go out. She used to say wrestle with me and keep working, things will change.”
During her ban, all she could compete was in the dangals in Haryana and New Delhi. She used to wrestle with same wrestlers who were with her at the cadet-level. The difference was, they were in the junior national camp while she was taunted even at dangals.
“For two years, I trained and wrestled at dangals whether it was on mat or mud,” she said. “The same wrestlers come there and I learnt a lot. In those two years, I learnt a lot about wrestling and people.”
“In these dangals, everyone used to say that she has cheated so don’t let her wrestle. Everyone used to pull out one thing or another. I used to think that I will show them once the ban ends.”
When she returned, winning the U-23 National Championships in October in Shirdi meant that she earned the right to represent India at the U-23 World Championships in Budapest.
A month later, she is the new national champion in 65kg.
In Jalandhar, after winning four bouts easily, she was up against former Asia and multiple time national champion Navjot Kaur. The two were slow to start but Dahiya did not give her senior even one chance to score a point. She scored two with a takedown before giving up one for a pushout. Dahiya then trapped Kaur in a lock and exposed her for a pin.
“I wanted to do what I have learnt in the last two years.” she said. “Now that I am in the national camp and Olympic qualifiers are left, I will train harder. I will hope to qualify for Tokyo Olympics in 68kg.”