Over the past decade, Mary Kom and Sarita Devi contributed for much of India’s success but Pooja Rani quietly made her mark with four international medals to her name. Last year, she capped a career-high by clinching gold in the Asian Championships.
The Tokyo Olympics might have been postponed to 2021 but it was Rani who kick-started India’s memorable run in Jordan in the qualifiers, becoming the first among nine boxers to seal their berth for the big-ticket event with a resounding 5-0 win in her 75kg bout against Pornnipa Chutee of Thailand.
It was almost an anti-climax to what was a hard-earned route to Rani’s first Olympic campaign. Three years ago, she feared her career was over while celebrating Diwali with her family. She injured her hand when a firecracker left a deep scar in her stronger hand. Pooja was out of the ring for one year but her woes compounded.
“I was just sparring in 2017. That is all I could do at the time,” Pooja told Scroll.in about her road to recovery.
“I put a lot of force behind a punch and ended up dislocating my shoulder. The doctors, at the time, suggested a surgery but I knew that I might not be able to make a smooth return to boxing after that.”
The tenacity to fight against odds is a streak Pooja had to mould and sharpen from her time as a teenager. Despite hailing from Bhiwani, a district in Haryana dubbed as India’s Cuba for the number of top boxers hailing from the region, convincing her father was a major stumbling block.
She said: “My father didn’t support me when I had started out. He didn’t like boxing because he thought it was a violent sport. He didn’t mind me taking to other sports but boxing was a strict no-go zone.”
Pooja’s father was then a sub-inspector and she hailed from a relatively well-to-do family which is also why her parents were not really in favour of her taking a combat sport. However, coach Sanjay Kumar and his wife Mukesh Rani, a lecturer in her college, saw the spark in the 5’8’’ girl and backed her efforts to make a mark in the sport.
In fact, on days when Pooja would get hurt during practice she would find an excuse to stay at the coach’s house just to avoid scrutiny from her parents.
An 18-year-old Pooja emerged as the surprise package in the state championships of 2009, a game-changer for her, at least on the domestic front.
“I kicked on from that win and won medals. While still not entirely convinced, it gave my dad confidence that I have a future in the sport,” Pooja added.
The 30-year-old made her mark internationally too, winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships in 2012 but fell well short of qualifying for the London Olympics. Four years later, with the boxing federation in the country sinking to a new low, Pooja’s prospects further diminished. None of the Indian women qualified for the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“[As for 2012] It was just over a year since I started to play out in international tournaments. And even though I had won a silver in the Asian Championships, I myself didn’t think I was good enough to win an Olympic event or qualify for that matter.
“It was difficult back then – you had to qualify through the World Championships.”
Cut to March 2020, there was so much riding on an in-form Pooja booking a spot to Tokyo. Despite winning an Olympic test event and emerging as the superior boxer in the 75kg category in the trials, a failure to qualify for the Summer Games may have pushed Pooja to consider stepping away from the game altogether – a thought that has crossed her mind before too.
She said: “It came to a point where I thought: ‘if I don’t qualify for the Olympics, I am not even going to attempt it anymore.’ I have been boxing at the top level for more than ten years. I would have resigned to the fact that yeh meri kismat mein nahi hai [This is not in my destiny].”
While Pooja took charge of her Olympic dream, mentally, she was so in tune with what she can bring to the ring. Experience too might have played a part. Now, the big punches walked hand in hand with greater tactical awareness. Lakshya Sports, she says, helped her get back in shape after the aforementioned firecracker burns nearly ended her career.
“They helped me a lot. They arranged a physio for me and started working on my shoulder. It took me a whole year to get back on track. They backed me during that time.”
But training the mind is what catapulted Pooja to new heights over the past year. In the Asian Championships final, few gave her the chance to bag gold as she was up against Chinese world champion Wang Lina in the 81 kg category.
“I was nervous for sure but I didn’t want to lose. Somewhere, deep down, I thought I could win,” she said, recalling the thrilling final in Bangkok.
“There are a lot of things that goes through a boxer’s mind before a bout. There are fears too. While those fears cannot be completely alleviated, we need more mental trainers to keep us focussed on the task ahead. That win [against Wang] gave the trainers the confidence to welcome me in the 75kg category,” said Pooja, who had to defeat Sanjay Kumar’s daughter Nupur for a spot in the qualifiers.
Pooja has to now wait a while before resuming competitive boxing as the world deals with the coronavirus outbreak, which forced the Japanese government to postpone the Olympics to 2021. The five-time national champion thinks the right decision was made but is keeping herself fit while maintaining social distancing.
“We have to do what is important even though a year is a long time in an athlete’s life,” she said. “But we have to think about what is important for the country. Even when I was quarantine, I was practicing at home so that I don’t lose my fitness.”
With Pooja hitting her peak, it won’t be a stretch to say that she is as good as a bet as six-time world champion Mary Kom to make her way to the podium when the Olympic games begin.