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Ignored in India, treasured abroad – India's only female sumo wrestler

Hetal Dave shares her lonely story of being India's only professional female sumo wrestler. Once placed 5th in the world and an entrant in the Limca Book of Records, Dave is made to feel more at home outside the country.

Indias only female sumo wrestler- Hetal Dave

India's only female sumo wrestler- Hetal Dave 


Soumya Bontra

Updated: 20 Jan 2022 9:45 AM GMT

When Hetal Dave goes abroad to compete, she is treated like a VIP. After all, she has always been known as the only sumo wrestler from India. But back home in India, all she gets is disbelief.

"In India, only when an athlete wins medals at the Olympics or bigger stages do the media and sports authorities focus on them. Before Tokyo 2020 no one knew about fencing, but as soon as Bhavani Devi qualified it came in the news," Hetal told The Bridge.

Because sumo wrestling is not an Olympic sport, sports authorities in India do not bother to think about it, Hetal said. As for prospective sponsors, they are more incredulous than supportive when they come to know that India has a female sumo wrestler.

"Due to lack of exposure, I don't even have employment today," she said.

Hetal's situation within the country is in direct contrast to the love she received when competing in countries like Estonia, Poland, Finland and Taiwan.

When she finished 5th at the 2008 World Games, she was the only Indian participant among 195 players.

"I was treated as a VIP in Estonia. Everything was new for me since it was my first international tournament. But as soon as people there learned about me, they helped me in every possible way. I'm a vegetarian and hence they arranged a special menu for me. Representing India outside the country has been a delightful experience for me so far," she said.

Hetal Dave in her sumo wrestling kit (Source: Indian Women Blog)

'Lack of recognition for such sports in India'

Hetal was the only Indian female sumo wrestler in 2008 and even 14 years later, that is a tag that she has to carry. She rued that no one else has come up in her sport in India because sports like sumo wrestling get zero exposure in the country.

"Lack of recognition by the higher authorities towards lesser-known sports is why athletes like me are ignored. This stops the growth of such sports."

But then Hetal always knew her battle was going to be an uphill one. When asked why Hetal chose to take up sumo wrestling as a career option, she said she wanted to be different than others.

"I used to play judo as a kid. Back then my coach used to train men sumo wrestlers and the sport always attracted me. I told my coach even I wanted to try sumo wrestling and he agreed to help me train like a professional athlete."

Watching Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies also helped inspire her.

Hetal Dave training in Mumbai (Source: KreedOn)

Top sumo wrestler in world struggles for recognition at home

Hetal said she never had the opportunity to play a state or national-level competition as there never was any other sumo wrestler for her to compete against. Even for training, it was her brother who agreed to play against her.

Hetal, who used Google and YouTube as her training aids, participated in the 2008 Sumo Wrestling World Championships in Estonia. After finishing in Top 8 at her first international event, Hetal was selected for the World Games – the highest-level competition for sumo wrestling.

But this was not good enough for her to get recognition in the country. "Only when a biopic is made on you is your struggle taken seriously in India," laughed Hetal.

For now, her major goal in life is to train youngsters who aspire to become sumo wrestlers like her - or take up any other sport that will require swimming against the tide.

"I will keep doing what I do, and reach out to people with my story. I also want to tell young athletes who might be in a similar situation like me – keep doing what you're doing, do not give up hope, one day your hard work will pay off," Hetal signed off.

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