Geeta Phogat, the woman who made India proud of wrestling, talks about her possible return, her journey to the top and who she thinks can win a wrestling medal at next year’s Olympic Games.
India, freestyle wrestling and the Olympics is a story in and of itself. Over the past few editions of the Games, India, a country with a rich history in hockey, has emerged as the new powerhouse of freestyle wrestling.
Whether it’s Sakshi Malik, Bajrang Punia, Sushil Kumar or even Yogeshwar Dutt, they’ve all played their part in making the country proud of this sport. However, rewinding the clock back ten years, it was a Haryana girl named Geeta Phogat whose performances really caught the imagination.
Widely remembered as the first female Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympic Games (London 2012), Geeta talked to Tokyo2020.org and poured her heart out on a lot of topics.
Where it all began…
Tokyo2020.org - You are the first female Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics. Talk us through your journey. We’ve seen it in the movie Dangal based on you and your sister Babita’s life, but we’d like to hear it in your words.
Geeta – “I didn’t choose wrestling as a sport for my life, my father did. My father wanted me to become a wrestler and get a medal for this country one day. My father and even my grandfather were wrestlers. Back in the day we didn’t used to wrestle on the mat, as there used to be no mats, we used to do it on mud in our village.”
“I remember during the Sydney Olympics in 2000, when Karnam Malleswari won the medal for India in weightlifting, she was all over the news and she got rewarded from the government as well. Seeing this my father thought, “Okay, I have four daughters too, why shouldn’t they join the sport? Why can’t they win a medal?” And that's where a journey of immense hard work and dedication began.
‘No’ was not an option for me!
It takes a lot of hard work to become a household name in your sport, wherever you are in the world. There is no shortcut. The script was no different for Geeta. Starting out wasn’t the easiest but she soon realised that she just had to train harder.
Tokyo2020.org – How was it in the beginning?
Geeta – “**Our father used to wake us up at 3:30 in the morning for training and believe me that was no fun. We didn’t realise how hard it was going to be until the 10th day arrived and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’ and my father didn’t take a “no” for an answer.”
“We (both of us sisters) used to go school, come back and train all day and night. Our father used to tell us one thing: ‘You can either work hard now and enjoy the rest of your life, or enjoy now and struggle later.’. And, you know, that thought stuck with us and kept us going. My sister and I really thank our parents for helping us become who we are today.”
“Postponement has given me time to think about a comeback”
In 2010, Geeta became the first female Indian wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games. Though she has made many fond memories on the mat over the years, her last recognised medal came in 2015 during the Asian Wrestling Championships in Doha, where she won bronze.
Geeta, who is 32 and the mother of a baby boy she calls ‘Junior Wrestler’, thinks the recent postponement of the Olympic Games will give her a chance to think about whether she can make a comeback for perhaps one last time. Her main concern right now is fitness.
“Now since the Games have been postponed till next year, let’s see, it more depends on my fitness. I will try my best. You don’t want to leave the sport you have been part of for so long. Wrestling demands us to remain fit and that’s the key. But for me, I think I have one last shot at glory left in me. I want to win a medal for my country and make my baby realise what his mother can do. The feeling of winning a medal and waving your nation's flag is unlike any other.”
“Support your daughters”
Tokyo2020.org – You have been an inspiration to women across the world. You have paved the way for a lot of young girls. Is there anything you’d like to say about that?
Geeta – “**I remember my father telling me to be brave, to never back down, learn to fight for yourself and above all to become tough. During our time, we faced difficulties to climb the ladder, as there were no competitions for girls like us who wanted to compete. Now, thanks to the government, there are a lot of competitions at the junior level too, which is really good for sports and women’s empowerment in our country.”
The freestyle wrestler then urged the parents of the daughters who want to pursue their career in any sport to let them come forward. “I want to say to the parents of all those girls who want to become sports athletes to push them forward so that they can pursue what they want. Because when parents are supportive, a girl can achieve whatever she wants.”
Punia, Vinesh can bring glory at Olympics
Wrestling is one sport where India believes they can win a lot of medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Though not many Indian wrestlers have qualified for the Games so far, Geeta still thinks there are two medal contenders on the list.
“Honestly, and I'm not just being biased because they’re family, but my cousin Vinesh Phogat and my brother-in-law Bajrang Punia... have all the potential to win a medal at the Games next year. They both have remained on the top of their game for a long time and know how to deliver when the stage demands so,” she explained.
Lastly, speaking more broadly about her chances of making a return, she said: “Now, since it (the Olympic Games) is postponed, I surely can think of making a comeback.”