Dhanda became the first Indian woman wrestler in six years to win a World Championship medal.
Asedulous Kuldeep Malik shrieks incessantly from the coaching area, his gestures getting loud with the running stopwatch. He stands and sits and jumps and sits back, holding himself to the seat impatiently. For once, it appeared that Malik at any moment might jump onto the mat. “Hath pakad kar rakh iska (hold back her by hands),” the coach strategised as Pooja Dhanda faced Norway’s Grace Jacob Bhullen in the 57 kg bronze medal match in the World Wrestling Championship.
At the end of three minutes, Malik finally breathed in some air. With a 10-7 win, Pooja had won India its second medal at the 2018 Worlds and a tough-fought bronze for herself to become only the fourth Indian woman to do so after Alka Tomar (2006), Geeta (2012) and Babita Phogat (2012).
Pooja’s opponent Bhullen was considered to be of greater strength than her. The Norwegian also had a physiological edge over Pooja with her strong record against Indians, but in answer to all that, the Haryana wrestler had her counter-attack strategy on top.
She opened up a 4-1 lead with a stunning throw and consolidated it with a roll to widen the lead to 6-1. She executed another four-point throw in the second period of the contest to take a 10-2 lead. Pooja gave away two caution points and some singles to her opponent but it was too late for Bhullen to catch up to the lead with lone points.
The medal race for Pooja was no less than a test of her wrestling career so far as she landed in the same pool as Rio Olympic and defending world champion Helen Maroulis, 2017 Worlds silver medalist in 55 kg, Adekuoroye Odunayo, and other big grapplers. The tough pool, at first, not only shocked Pooja and her coach but also made her family nervous. “We had not seen such a tough pool so far. Every bout was very tough,” Pooja’s father Ajmer Singh told The Sunday Guardian.
But Pooja loves gobbling up champions. She had done that in past. Earlier this year in the Pro Wrestling league, she had quelled Helen Maroulis of the USA twice, World Championship silver medalist and Olympic bronze medalist Adekuoroye Odunayo of Nigeria and World Championship silver medalist Marwa Amri.
“We had confidence in our daughter and God. She told us on phone ‘Paapaji aap chinta mat karna, mai achi ladungi’ (Don’t worry dad, I will fight well). And she did it. She fought really well,” an elated Ajmer said after the win.
The 24-year-old indulged in sports in 2004, learning judo and wrestling simultaneously under coach Subash Chander Soni at the Mahavir Stadium in Hisar.
“She started off in wrestling but during that time an age group of 9-13 years was introduced in first Youth Judo Championship. She then had time to start off in professional wrestling so we let her try hands at judo.” said Ajmer.
Pooja has been a four-time junior national champion. She has won a bronze medal in Asian Cadet Judo Championship in 2007. The youngster has also secured a silver medal in the first edition of Youth Olympics Games in 2010. After earning medal in judo, Pooja proved her mettle in wrestling as well. Debuting in the national championship in 2013, she defeated the then wrestling fame Babita Phogat in the final followed by a bronze medal in the 2014 Asian Championship. But the following year, Pooja suffered a career-threatening knee injury during a practice session with Geeta Phogat in Lucknow. “After injury it occurs to every sportsperson that how they’ll make a comeback. The rehab in Mumbai was a struggle. My knee got into shape after two operations and then I made a comeback in Pro Wrestling season 2. Thereafter, my performance has only enhanced with experience,” Pooja shared.
The medal at Worlds serves as an inspiration to her for the road ahead. For now she is resting for a few days.
“The Olympic Qualifiers will begin from next year. So for now, it will be the priority. My main target is Tokyo. After Worlds, the expectations from the Indian wrestlers have risen. We are expected to win medal at the Olympics,” Pooja said.