Junior wrestlers did India proud at the recent U-20 World Championships in Amman, Jordan. But it was the girls who shone really bright, bagging three of the four golds India won. And they all had to grapple with enormous odds to reach the top, finds Hindol Basu
Antim Panghal doesn’t give up easily. Recently, the 19-year-old raised her voice when Vinesh Phogat was directly given an Asian Games ticket by the ad hoc committee looking after the day-to-day affairs of Wrestling Federation of India. Antim and her family protested outside the office of the Indian Olympic Association and filed a petition in the Delhi High Court against Vinesh’s direct entry. She returned disappointed from the court, but luck favoured her as Vinesh withdrew from the Asiad due to injuries. Antim, being the reserve after having won the trials in the 53kg weight category, has been given the chance to represent the country.
Antim celebrated her Asiad entry with a gold at the 2023 U-20 world championships. It was back-to-back gold for the young wrestler, who had bagged the top position in the 2022 edition as well. There was steel and determination in Antim’s performance this time. She fought with such ferocity and authority that she conceded just two points in the entire tournament.
She hails from Bhagana village in Hisar, Haryana, and is the fourth daughter of Ram Niwas and Krishna Kumari. But why would anyone call their daughter Antim, which means ‘final’? “We are five siblings – four sisters and a brother,” Antim said. “I am the fourth daughter; my brother is the youngest. My parents named me Antim because they didn’t want any more female children. It’s a village custom that was followed. Luckily, my brother was born next.”
Although her naming had a deep sense of patriarchy involved in it, Antim kept proving her detractors wrong with her performances. Her father, a farmer, supported Antim’s wrestling pursuits wholeheartedly.
“Wrestling is in my blood. My father also participated in local dangals. Initially, there was some roka-toki (interference) by my mother, relatives over my presence at the wrestling pit, but my father was always with me,” she said.
Father Ram Niwas was effusive in his daughter’s praise. “From the very beginning, Antim has been a topper in the game. Stopping her (from wrestling) would have been a paap (crime). According to me, parents should allow their girls to participate in wrestling,” he says.
Her mother Krishna Devi recalled that everyone was upset when Antim was born. “Everyone said it is God’s will. But after her birth, everything went well for the family. We purchased a tractor and a car. We now sold the car to fund Antim’s practice, but she has brought laurels to the country,” Krishna Devi said.
Grandfather Inspired Priya
Priya Malik may be soft-spoken and demure, but she is a beast on the mat. In Amman, Priya improved on the silver she had won at the 2022 U-20 world championships. The 18-year-old dominated her German opponent throughout the bout
Priya comes from the same village (Nidani in Jind, Haryana) as 2022 Commonwealth Games silver medallist Anshu Malik. Both have been trained by coach Jagdish Sheoran. It comes as no surprise that Priya looks up to Anshu. “I saw Anshu didi train at the Nidani Sports School. I liked how she went about her daily routine… that made me decide to pursue wrestling professionally,” says Priya.
But the initial push came from her “dadda” (grandfather) Prithvi Singh. “My father (Jai Bhagwan Malik) and uncle (Rakesh Malik) were also wrestlers. My father was a havildar in the Indian Army and represented the Services team at the national level, while my uncle went on to become a coach. But it was my grandfather who initiated me into the sport,” she said.
“Unfortunately, he passed away in 2020 after a heart attack. I wish he could’ve seen me finish on top of an international event just once. I won my first international medal in 2021 – a gold at the Cadet World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. But by that time, he had already left us.”
Father Jai Bhagwan had different plans for Priya, but eventually gave in. “Priya was and still is very good in studies. So, initially, I wanted her to focus on her studies. My father wanted her to take up wrestling. She got into the sport out of Baba’s desire,” he said.
Priya began winning medals the very year (in 2017) she started her training. There was no looking back after that.
Savita Outperformed Boys
Rohtak’s Sir Chhotu Ram Stadium wrestling academy is a cradle for several aspiring wrestlers – both boys and girls – from the district and surrounding areas. One of the biggest names in Indian wrestling, Sakshi Malik, a bronze medallist at the 2016 Rio Olympics, also trained at this academy. In fact, at present there are more female wrestlers training at the academy than males.
Savita Dalal, who won a gold at the U-20 world championships, is a product of this wrestling academy. Originally from Balana village, 36 km away from Rohtak, Savita was brought to the academy by her uncle Krishan Kumar in 2017. They stay at a rented accommodation in Rohtak town and go for training at the academy under coach Mandeep Saini.
Krishan Kumar has three sons. On the mat, his niece often outperforms his sons. “She (Savita) is like my own daughter. I take pride when she gets the better of my sons. When she wins medals at international competitions, it gives me a sense of satisfaction that our sacrifices have not gone waste,” said Krishan.
Savita’s father Sunil Kumar is a small-time farmer. He earns just enough from his produce to keep the family going. “My grandfather was a pehelwan, and pehelwaani runs in my blood. I must live up to his name,” says Savita.
Her uncle, whom Savita calls “papa”, was also a wrestler during his younger days but some “personal issues” cut short his wrestling career. “Savita is very determined. She will keep the family flag flying,” Krishan said.