India’s rising star Pooja Dhanda singlehandedly set the third season of the Pro Wrestling afire with a series of victories over top international stars. However, this is just the beginning of the journey for her. The young wrestler is now looking forward to winning gold at the Commonwealth and Asian Games later this year.
Representing the Punjab Royals in the women’s 57-kilogram category, Pooja defeated reigning World and Olympic champion Helen Maroulis of USA twice, including once in the final.
She also defeated World Championship silver medallist and Olympic bronze medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria and World Championship silver medallist Marwa Amri of Tunisia during the tournament as Punjab went on to win the title.
These consecutive victories have come as a major morale booster for Pooja, who has already secured a spot in the Indian squad for the Commonwealth Games by defeating Geeta Phogat in the trials.
‘Beating Maroulis was a major confidence booster for me. It gave me the belief that I can beat anyone on my day,’ the 24-year-old told The Bridge.
“Now I want to win gold at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games. I know the Asian Games will be tough, but I am confident. I fear no one,” she added.
Hailing from a village called Gudana in Hisar district of Haryana, Pooja had initially started out as a judoka, before switching to wrestling in 2009, and has not looked back since then.
It was former Asian champion Kripa Shankar Bishnoi who played a major role in that decision.
The shift from Judo to Wrestling
Currently working as a coach, Bishnoi advised Pooja that her body structure and attitude was more suited to wrestling than judo.
She did well in the newly adopted sport, quickly emerging as one of the country’s top prospects.
Pooja went on to take the silver medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics in girls’ 60kg freestyle event before displaying her dominance in the Nationals.
‘I debuted in the national championship in 2013 and defeated Babita Phogat in the final to win the gold. Thereafter I participated four times and emerged champion every time,’ Pooja said.
But tragedy struck in 2015 when she suffered a tear in her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) during a practice session at a training camp in Lucknow.
Pooja had just started to break into the senior ranks at that stage and the injury threw her career into uncertainty.
She had to undergo two surgeries and a lengthy rehabilitation process, including a three-week stint in Mumbai.
The injury also saw her miss out on the Amir Khan-starrer Bollywood movie ‘Dangal’ in which she was offered the role of Babita Phogat.
‘I was selected but due to an injury, I had to be out for six months. Although, I tried to get back to training after that period but wasn’t feeling fit enough and had to go back to rehab,” Pooja said
“I had given nine years of my life to wrestling and did not want to leave it in midway without fulfilling my dreams,’ she added.
The way forward
She eventually returned to competitive wrestling after a two-year hiatus and represented the Jaipur Ninjas at the PWL.
Even though her team didn’t qualify for the semi-finals, Pooja’s performances were appreciated and she joined the reigning champions Punjab Royals for the third season.
“The victories over World and Olympic medallists have been a major morale booster for me.
‘Actually, when you get the opportunity to share the ring with these Olympic standard players in your own country, it automatically motivates you and prepare you to perform well in international events,’ Pooja, who also won the national championships last year, said.
‘Confidence is the key now after beating everyone. I want to win medals now for the country. I will give everything on the mat regardless of the result.’
So what will be her next target once the 2018 Asian Games are over?
“I am looking forward to the 2020 Olympics. Winning an Olympic medal is a dream for any athlete and my PWL performances have shown that I have what it takes to achieve it.”