Commonwealth Games 2018: Pooja Dhanda aims for gold in debut after recovering from career-threatening injury

Name: Pooja Dhanda

Age: 24

Discipline (sport): Wrestling

Category: 57 kg

Past CWG performance: Debut

Past record (best performances): Bronze in Asian Wrestling Championships 2014.

One doesn't quite know where Pooja Dhanda would've been right now had she opted to continue in the sport of judo. However, the fact that she decided to switch to the world of wrestling while still in her teens has worked well for her, given that she will be travelling to Gold Coast with the Indian contingent for the 2018 edition of the Commonwealth Games.

However, her wrestling journey so far has not been without its share of hurdles, ones that nearly made her quit the sport.

Born on New Year's Day in 1994, Dhanda, daughter of a tractor driver with the Haryana Animal Husbandry Centre in Hisar, had an active involvement in sports right from an early age. Before devoting herself fully to wrestling, Dhanda had a brief stint in the world of judo, from where she had even drawn a medal. However, in a report in The Statesman earlier this year, Dhanda clarified that she "was always inclined towards wrestling from an early age", contrary to certain reports.

Pooja Dhanda. Art work by Rajan Gaikwad

Pooja Dhanda. Art work by Rajan Gaikwad

Dhanda got her wrestling career off to a good start with a silver in the 2010 Youth Olympics in the 60kg category. Three years later, she would debut in the national championships, in which she would defeat accomplished grappler Babita Phogat in the final. The following year saw her win bronze in the 57kg category of the Asian Wrestling Championships in Almaty in Kazakhstan, which not only happens to be her biggest achievement on the international circuit so far, but was also her last medal at a major event.

Her performances eventually attracted the attention of the production crew behind the hit Bollywood Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal — based on the Phogat wrestling family in Bhiwani, Haryana — in which she was initially offered the role of Commonwealth Games gold medallist Babita, the same wrestler she had defeated in the 2013 Nationals.

However, fate would have different plans for her as far as her acting aspirations were concerned. During a training camp in Lucknow in 2015, she suffered a tear to her anterior cruciate ligament, one that nearly derailed her wrestling career, and for which she had to undergo two surgeries as well as extensive rehabilitation before she could stand on her legs again.

Dhanda travelled to Mumbai for physiotherapy on the advice of Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi, her coach from her junior days. The first surgery wasn't successful, and what further delayed her recovery was her return to the mat while still in the recovery period. There were blood clots detected on her joint, according to Scroll, which led to her requiring a second surgery, one that, thankfully for her, turned out to be successful.

Even though she was able to stand properly once again, there still lay the challenge of finding her feet among the best in the sport. The Pro Wrestling League (PWL), a franchise-based tournament, turned out to be a platform for her to make a comeback. She pulled off a major upset by beating the defending Olympic champion and two-time world champion, Helen Maroulis, while representing Punjab Royals in third edition of the PWL earlier in February this year and it was exactly the kind of feat that would have helped her believe in herself once again.

PWL 3 turned out to be a roaring success for her as she went on to beat Olympic bronze medallist Odunayo Adekuoroye as well as world championship silver medallist Marwa Amri, aside from her memorable win over Maroulis.

Having defeated Geeta Phogat during the trials for the 57kg category to seal her place in the Indian contingent for the Commonwealth Games, Dhanda will now set her sights at the glittering gold medal in what will be her debut appearance in the event. And once we move past the CWG and the Asian Games this year, there's the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to consider.

"The Commonwealth Games are important, but my target will be the 2020 Olympics," said Dhanda according to ESPN.

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Updated Date: Mar 17, 2018 11:40:21 IST

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