As a child, Laishram Sarita Devi had never heard of boxing, leave alone wear gloves and pummel opponents in the ring. But the inquisitive kid, the sixth out eight children born to a farmer and a housewife living on the outskirts of Imphal, took to martial arts with ease.
Sarita’s first encounter with the sport, an informal sparring session at the Sports Authority of India centre in Imphal, was a hilarious one. Understandably, it would driven away any impressionable teenager from a sport that already has a reputation of being violent and unforgiving in nature.
“There was this guy....he had taken off his head gear after sparring. I’d told my coaches at the time ‘he is sweating in red! I don’t want to play this sport,’” Sarita told Scroll.in.
A confusing mix of paint and sweat may had left little Sarita a little bewildered, but at the time, her mind was occupied with matters at home. She had lost her father and her single mother was struggling to feed what was a large household.
“My dad died when I was 13 years old and that left a big void in my life at the time. That was the time when I became active in sports. I thought I could somehow make a career in it,” she said.
Sarita’s path became clearer when veteran Dingko Singh became a national hero after winning the Asian Games gold in 1998. Dingko’s win also went on to change the lives of scores of youngsters from his state.
“I fell in love with boxing from there,” she said. “I was there when Dingko sir was facilitated in my village. Standing in the crowd, I realised that I wanted to play at that level too.
“There were more challenges and I continued with it. I also played two exhibition bouts in the National Games in 1999. Of course, insurgency problems at the time meant that there were restrictions.”
The road to Sarita’s dream, though, was treacherous. There were many battles that had to be fought even before stepping into a ring. Some had to be fought even after she had become a national champion.
“I’d wake up a six, walk for three kms, take a bus and then walk some more just to make it on time for practice,” Sarita recalled.
“But I needed pocket money at the time when I was travelling. As an athlete, I needed money to eat. We had to arrange everything at the time, even for the Nationals. I’d look around and see that the rest of the kids were mentally and physically ready for the battle. I used to wonder how I’d get by and burst into tears,” she added.
The Asian Championships of 2001, though, made boxing experts in the country sit up and take notice of Sarita. She finished with a silver medal at the event and thinks that it was a “turning point” in her chequered career.
But women’s boxing still received step-motherly treatment at the time. While Sarita was at the forefront of a new wave of fearless, hungry achievers, it was not until her bronze-medal win in the 2005 World Championships did fame, or an insurance policy from the government for that matter, come her way.
“I just had one tracksuit at the time and would borrow gloves as well,” Sarita remembered.
“There was a lot going on before the Russia World Championships. My elder brother was ailing but when I came back with a medal, I got a job in All India Police. They [the Manipur Police department] helped me a lot.”
Sarita now boxed with a new-found spring in her step and a year later, in 2006, she arguably scaled her biggest career-high of winning a World Championship gold. The fact that that it was in New Delhi, with her mum watching from the stands, made it even sweeter.
“I was just thinking how I could improve as a boxer at the time. For some of them, getting a job [with the government] means everything and slowly start to lose their competitive edge. I was getting a regular income now but I didn’t want to stop there,” she said.
Sarita vs Mary
By now, Sarita, without a doubt was regarded as among the finest in Asia. Though state colleague and Mary Kom was also walking away with the big prizes, Sarita held her own and was believed to be technically stronger as well by coaches who worked with them.
Sarita and Mary’s careers often crossed paths. The former even beat the six-time world champion fair and square in an Olympic trial in 2011 but the Indian contingent needed both of them in London if they had to improve their chances of earning a medal.
Sarita now had to move to a different weight category: “There are lot of people competing in the smaller weight categories,” she explained.
“I was in 52kg because Mary was a 46kg boxer at the time. I got selected too but the coaches told me that I should try for 60kg. I had a lot of trust in my coaches. I ate a lot and trained myself for the switch.”
In boxing circles, there have been murmurs of Sarita not being given her due despite possessing a formidable medal tally. And there is a lot in common between the two bulwarks of Indian boxing: They are the same age, from the same state, even their road to the top have seen a similar trajectory and have had coaches who know them since Mary and Sarita were fresh-faced hopefuls.
“God has given us different gifts,” Sarita says, brushing aside the frequent comparisons. “We are different people. Some just want to sit and compare and go: ‘Oh, Mary did this, Sarita did that.’ I think I am still the small-town girl at heart. I am very happy for Mary. She had work really hard and did so well even after giving birth to three kids.”
But being moved across weight categories is not something new for Sarita. In the Asian Championships, she belongs to a unique brand of pugilists to have won gold medals across four different weight categories. She was a 52kg boxer when she won her World Championships gold and bronze. Then, she won another World Championship bronze in the 54kg category. This, after starting out as a 57kg boxer in her early years. Perhaps, not nailing down a division may have been an impediment for dominating outside the continent.
Post pregnancy and Asian Games 2014
In the meantime, Sarita married Thoiba Singh and gave birth to son Tomthil in 2013. Her mind was still in the boxing ring. Having gained nearly fifteen kilos during her pregnancy, she got back in shape through a rigorous workout regimen. 2014, after all, had the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games and for Sarita, yet another chance to prove her mettle and add more medals to her collection.
“I wasn’t sure if I would make a comeback at the time,” Sarita said.
“I was weighing 75kg after giving birth to my son. I wasn’t if I’d make a comeback at the time but my husband supported me.”
During a gruelling fitness camp two days before the Commonwealth Game in Glasgow, Sarita suffered a debilitating injury and it threatened to bring her career to a premature end, leave alone fight through the event.
Sarita said: “The Commonwealth Games directly after delivery, my first competition. There was a ligament that was torn. The doctors there had advised me not to play the sport again.”
“But I was determined to make a comeback. I used to eat two painkillers every day and lost the final because I was running on empty by that time.”
Next stop for Sarita was Incheon in Korea for the Asian Games, where chaos descended in the semi-final. The Indian was in resounding form and got the better of Korean Park Ji-na but the judges thought otherwise. A tearful Sarita, at the medal podium, gave away her bronze medal in an act of defiance, something that got her a one-year ban.
“I was so sad, emotionally distraught,” Sarita said, recounting what she felt at the time. “I worked really hard for the tournament, but at that moment, I was broken.”
Six years on, the 38-year-old has made her peace with the controversy. “If you think about it, it is going to affect your peace of mind. If you don’t, it doesn’t,” she laughed. “My mum was also shocked by what she saw and even asked me to quit the sport.”
However, four years from the Asian Games fiasco, Sarita did consider walking away from the game after her mum’s passing following a battle with cancer.
At the time, Sarita was in New Delhi for the World Championships, a dozen years after winning gold in the same city, and bowed out in a close split-decision verdict in the pre-quarterfinals against Ireland’s Kellie Harrington.
“I fought hard but the decision went against me. I had even kept a TV in her room before leaving Manipur. My family had also not told me when she had passed away. Perhaps they didn’t want me to lose focus. My mum always doted on me. I didn’t want to come back in the game after that,” she said.
An Olympic campaign went missing from Sarita’s campaign, but she has already trained her guns at grooming young hopefuls. Kids from the Sarita Regional Boxing Academy (SRBA) have already made their name at the state and the national level. Given how the Arjuna Awardee has bounced back after every setback, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to see her in a more active role behind the scenes in the years to come.