It had been six years since Indian women wrestlers had found a podium spot at the World Championships. Pooja Dhanda ended the wait in October last year. En route to the bronze medal, she had not only got herself billed as the new star on the horizon but also survived an injury that had put a question mark over her career.
“I was out of action for almost one or one-and-half year. It was mentally and financially draining. I had started doubting a comeback. But the family support and especially my father’s motivation kept my will power strong,” she says. Her father, Ajmer Singh, who had always been interested in sports, had also been pivotal in introducing her to the sports world.
And, once her recovery was over and she hit the mat again, there was no stopping this Hissar girl. “Coming back after an injury is quite difficult. I believed in myself but you never know till you fight. The Pro Wrestling League 3 helped in doing that as beating big names helped me regain the necessary confidence,” adds Pooja, who was originally offered to play the role of Babita Phogat in Dangal but she chose not to lose focus.
She not only beat the Greek-American freestyle Olympic and world champion Helen Louise Maroulis but also got the better of PWL’s star wrestler and world championships bronze medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigerian and Rio Olympic bronze medallist Marwa Amri of Tunisia.
The international training stints and the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games exposure set her on course for bigger glory. “When I was causing those upsets, I knew that winning a medal at the World Championships wasn’t very far away,” she recalls.
A remarkable 10-7 win over the 2017 European champion Grace Jacob Bullen earned her the World Championships medal and made her the star to watch out for in the ongoing season four of PWL where she featured for debutantes MP Yodha. “PWL is always a good practice as you get to compete against a lot of big names. Our team (MP Yodha) was a mix of new and old, we had some good rounds, some good wins but could not take it to all the way,” the Gold Coasts CWG silver medallist admits.
The girl who chose wrestling over judo had a promising start when she won the silver medal at the 2010 Summer Youth Olympics. She made her senior debut in the national championship in 2013 where she beat Babita Phogat in the final. It was in 2018 CWG selection trials that she competed against her idol Geeta Phogat and even beat her at the game.
Now she has her sight set on the ultimate podium – the Olympic Games. “This is a very crucial year for me,” Pooja states. “Apart from good performances at the Asian Championships and the World Championships, I would be aiming to secure the Olympic berth from the former competition itself.”