Meet Ritu Phogat, the most expensive Indian woman wrestler at the upcoming Pro-Wrestling League
Ritu Phogat’s beatific countenance implores one to recall her wrestling bouts. With a fixed gaze at her opponent, finding the opportunity, she swiftly attacks Aparna Bishnoi, to toss and turn her, in a contest to defend her title at the National Wrestling Championship 2016.
I am introduced to Ritu as she converses with her Jaipur Ninjas teammate Pooja Dhanda, in a vocabulary, foreign to me, perceivably wrestling related. Noticing the familiar button nose and high cheek bones she shares with her sisters, I ask her, who she looks upto for inspiration. “Geeta and Babita, both of them. No, wait, I think Geeta,”says Ritu in a perplexed tone. Naming one of them is a tough task, she confesses.
Her appearance has markers of her wrestling persona. She gives me a strong handshake. Though she carries a fresh face and is wreathed in smiles, one can notice her cauliflower ears, one naturally receives in professional wrestling. Her close-cropped bristly hair bearing a dusty look is testament to hours or practice and contests.
The 22 year old wrestler, third in line of the famed Phogat sisters, grabbed the price of 36 lakh rupees, emerging as the most expensive Indian woman wrestler in the upcoming Pro Wrestling League, leaving seasoned players like Sakshi Malik and Geeta Phogat behind. Having recently won a gold medal at Commonwealth Championship in Singapore, Ritu is set to wrestle for Jaipur Ninjas in the League.
You are the highest paid Indian player in the league. Does that put pressure on you?
Definitely, you can’t deny the pressure. There is pressure to perform. But, when I get on the mat, I keep pressure aside. My team has trusted me by making such a huge investment. I am confident of making it count and prove them right.
Talking about the movie Dangal, how far do you think it’s non-fictional?
The movie is 99 per cent real. My father is much more ‘hanikarak’ (injurious) than his portrayal in the movie (chuckles). And yes, since it’s a movie, there are elements of fiction as well, but that doesn’t discredit the representation of reality.
How difficult was it for you to learn and sustain in a male dominated sport?
Well, honestly speaking, I didn’t have to face much, as my elder sisters Geeta and Babita had already gone through the problems and cleared the ground for me. In their case, the elders in the village used to say that it is shameful for girls to wear shorts and keep their hair short and that no one would marry them if they play the sport. I didn’t have to face much because my father and sisters have been very supportive.
Why is Haryana the base of strength based sports like wrestling, boxing and kabaddi?
Well, these sports are rural in nature and have emerged from the grassroots. In an agricultural state like Haryana, where major parts are still rural, the ground is fertile for such sports. Plus, you don’t need to make a lot of investment to play such sports as the required equipment is negligible.
These sports are part of the state’s culture. There are many anecdotes and folklores around them, motivating the youth to take them up. Also, the food products locally manufactured here like curd and lassi and milk supplement a person’s diet and help in building strength and fitness levels.
What’s a typical Ritu Phogat day like?
I wake up 4 a.m. in the morning with my sisters and train for 2-3 hours. After that we have breakfast which is supplemented by curd apart from juice and almond shake that my father prepares. Then we sleep. After having lunch, it’s leisure time as we play cards or watch news on the TV. We train for another 2-3 hours after that, come back, have dinner, and sleep. So, if you see, the total time we dedicate to the sport in a day is close to six hours.
You had to drop-out after completing secondary school. Do you think studies and professional sports can’t go hand in hand? Did you always want to be a wrestler?
I think both can’t be done at the same time. I studied till 10th standard and then my father told me that either you could play sports or study. Waking up at 4 a.m. in the morning, training, and then attending school is not an easy task. I used to take naps in between while in class as my teachers were aware about my practice routine.
I started training when I was 8. My father made me do it. I don’t think a child of that age is old enough to make sound decisions. I was given a particular direction in early age and that has remained with me. I eventually developed passion for the sport.
During your entire career as a wrestler, did you ever want to give up?
There were multiple times in the initial phase of the training when I wanted to give up. I used to tell my mother that I can’t do it anymore, and she used to say that this hard work is just for 3 years, after which my life will change. I am still waiting for those three years to end (chuckles).
Who do you look upto among your sisters and do you feel competitive with them?
Though both Geeta and Babita inspire me a lot, I really look upto Geeta. She is an inspiring figure. And, my other cousin sister Vinesh is close to my age and is also in the same weight category. You could say we have competition in that sense. We also practice together and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Whenever I lose against her, I work harder, as my father says that whoever works harder, will shine.
What are your strengths and weakness as a player? Apart from India, players of which other countries give tough competition to you?
My strength is my stamina and my weakness are my legs as I expose them to my opponent at times. Irrespective of the opponent’s origin and the numbers of medals they’ve won, I give a tough fight. My practice speaks on the mat. And, a sense of wonder is only for a moment during the warm-up period before a match. When I am on the mat, I have only one thing in my mind, that there are just six minutes that I have to win the contest.
For two consecutive years, you’ve been winning the senior nationals and also won gold at the Commonwealth Championship 2016 in Singapore. What tournaments are you looking forward to after this?
I have had close contests with Nirmala Devi for the past 3-4 years. Though there are various tournaments at the international level like Asian and Commonwealth championships, my father has told me to aim for nothing below a gold in Olympics. So, I am primarily targeting the 2020 Japan Olympics and have already started my practice.