Beginnings are one of the strange and tricky things in wrestling. The movie Dangal does justice to my claim as the legendary coach Mahavir Singh Phogat realized that his daughters Geeta and Babita Phogat were meant to be on the mat when they beat up two boys.Describing the beginning of her sister’s journey to commonwealth gold medals Ritu, says
“Geeta aur Babita kumari bohot choti thi jab unhone wrestling start ki thi. Har din subha 3:30 baje uthna padta tha, wrestling ki training bhi bohot tough thi toh kuch bhi karke isse picha chudana chahte teh. Par bhag kar bhi nahi ja sakte the kyunki coach bhi papa the.(Laughs)”
She recalls the time when they started training for wrestling. The two started when they were very young. They had a tough schedule, where they had to get up at 3:30 and go for tough drills. They tried their best to get rid of it but at the end of the day they didn’t really have much of an option.
In the movie Dangal it was shown that Geeta and Babita were subjected to a lot of taunts and snide comments when they started wrestling. Ritu however did not have to face anything like that. Ritu say that it was only her father and her elder sisters who had to face the unnecessary comments. For her the path was clear.
” Mujhe kuch bhi sunna nahi pada. Jo kuch bhi sunna Geeta aur Babita aur mere papa ne suna. Mere liye rasta saaf tha aur merei manzil mere samne thi”
The major focus of the movie was on Geeta and Babita but most do not know that Ritu too started training with her sisters. She was seven when she took up wrestling, Geeta and Babita were 11 and 9 respectively when they did.
“Mere umar 7 saal thi jab maine wrestling start ki. Hum sab ko papa ne ek sath hi wrestling shuru karva yethi. Geeta 11 kithi, Babita 9 ya 10 ki aur main 7 ki. Sangeeta ne thode time ke bad wrestling shuru ki. Papa ko wrestling ka knowledge bhi tha aur jante bhi the ke kya karna hai to isleye unhone sabko wrestling bohot kam umar main start karva di”
The fact that her sisters have managed to take Indian women wrestling to the next level and have captured gold medals on various platforms like the Commonwealth Games has lead to a lot of expectations from Ritu. Opening up about what exactly it’s like to carry the name Phogat to the Commonwealth Wrestling Championship gold medalist says
“Ha pressure to rehta hi hai. Geeta aur Babita ne aaj female wrestling ko ek naye makam tak pohocha diya hai Bharat main. To logo ko expectation rehte he hain ki ye inki behen hai to kuch karke dikhayege. Thoda bohot pressure islye bhi rehta hai ki main khud chahti hu inki jo makam mere behno ne hasil kiya hai use aur upar leke jao”
Ritu says that the fact that her sisters have gone on to take Indian women wrestling to a new high does add pressure. People expect the same from her. Apart from that she expects that she will be able to take the legacy of her family to a new high.
Peer pressure usually acts as a poison in the growth of an athlete but for Ritu it acts like a catalyst.
“Logo ko kafi umeed hai ki main kuch aur karke dikhaoo, ki main apni sisters se aur bhi upar jaoo. Dikhao unki agar Phogat sister Geeta, Babita aur Vinesh hai to unse bhi kam nahi hu. Is vajah se thodi aur practice jyada karti huin.”
Ritu say that people expect me to go ahead of my sisters and achieve what they couldn’t. And I am ready to prove it to everyone that I am as good as my sisters Geeta, Babita and Vinesh. Hence I work harder.
Pro wrestling league returned with the Ritu being the most expensive wrestler as she managed to bag a contract of 33 lakhs. Her performance at the league wasn’t as impressive as people expected it to be. But people failed to notice that Ritu faced one of the best wrestlers of all time and her biggest challenge till date when she meet three time Olympic medalist Mariya Stadnik.
“Vo kafi experienced thi. Vo 3 bar Olympic medalist hai, usko experience hai. Main abhi abhi senior main aai huin to bas experience tha unme zyada.”
Ritu in fact was glad that she could get an exposure to elite competition this early in her senior career.
” Pro Wrestling League se mujhe bohot kuch sikhne ko mila hai. Olympic medalist the league main. To unke sath training karke mujhe kafi kuch sikhne ko mila hai. Vo batate bhi the kya karna hai, kya nahi. Team ke sath work karne se kafi kuch sikhne ko mila. Aur jo Asia championship hogi is bar usme main kafi behter sabit hongi.”
Ritu says she faced someone way more experienced. Stadnik is a 3 time Olympic medalist and hence has way more experience. Ritu explains that Pro Wrestling League has helped her a lot. The league had many Olympic athletes competing in it. They taught her a lot of things and helped her improve her game.
Ritu Phogat walked out with the gold medal at Commonwealth championship in 2016. This was her first senior gold medal. When asked to describe the experience. Describing the experience Ritu said:
“Jab desh ke liye gold medal jeet the hain toh accha lagta hee hai. Aur bohot kuch sikhne ko bhi milta hai. Haarte hain tab hi aur jeete hai tab hi kuch na kuch sikhne ko milta hai.”
Winning a gold for your country makes you feel good. You also get to learn a lot. If you win you learn, if you lose you learn.
For Indian wrestlers the next big stage is the Asian championship. Ritu too is preparing hard for the championship. “Asia championship national trials honge. Main over confident nahi par confident zarur hoon. Kyun ki main 48kg national wrestling champion hoon toh yeh vahi hain jinko maine haraya hai. Thoda confidence hai par main overconfident nahi huin. Main abhi aur bhi zyada practice kar rahi huin”
Ritu says that they’ll be soon having national trials for Asia wrestling championship. She is pretty confident that she will walk out with the win as she is the current national champion at 48 kg category. But at the same time she isn’t over confident and is working hard.
In India female sports aren’t promoted. There have been several cases where female athletes have given up their sporting career because of family pressure. Being from a family which supports her in her every step Ritu never really faced any of these problems but not every athletes gets the same support. Ritu had some words of encouragement for them.
” Main bas unse yeh hee kehna chahungi jo tumhara talent hai vo har kisi ko nahi milta. Tum ne iske liye bohot mehnat kee hai. Toh practice karte raho kyunki safalta ussi ko milti hai jo mehnat karta hai. Kisi ko jaldi milte hai safalta aur kisi ko late. Par apna ek goal banao aur usi pe focus rakho. Safalta zaroor milegi.”
MMA is gaining popularity. It has gone on to become one of the most popular combat sports. Ritu too is interested in trying her hands on it.
“Wrestling ko chodke toh koi bhi sport nahi start karungi. Main apni puri zindagi wrestling main bitana chahti huin. Haan par ek bar karna zarur chahungi.”
I won’t leave wrestling for any other sport. I want to spend my entire life wrestling. But yeah I would love to give MMA a try.
Ritu ends the conversation with a motivational message for her fans. Quoting her father she says that fix an aim and work with determination. If you start doing this you won’t ever lose.
” Mere papa hamesha kehte hain kee dur drishti aur pakka irade ke sath kaam karo. Jo bhi ye apni zindagi main layega vo kabhi maar nahi khayega.”