Coronavirus Outbreak: Wrestler Pooja Dhanda calls for fresh Olympic trials post-lockdown

'I think there should be a trial once normalcy returns. There is one full year before the Olympics and it has never happened that a qualifier is held so early,' Pooja said.

Shantanu Srivastava April 23, 2020 21:33:53 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: Wrestler Pooja Dhanda calls for fresh Olympic trials post-lockdown

New Delhi: With all sporting action across the world postponed or cancelled in wake of the global coronavirus outbreak and the Tokyo Olympics being pushed back by almost a year, wrestler Pooja Dhanda, who competes in the 57-kg class, has called for fresh trials to assert her claim for the Olympics berth.

Pooja's stunning loss to upstart Anshu Malik at the national trials earlier this year had ended her chances of participation at the Asian Championships held in the capital, and by extension, Asian Olympic Qualifiers scheduled later. That, however, was before the COVID-19 pandemic turned the established order upside down.

The Asian Qualifiers, originally scheduled in Xian, China from 27-29 March, were moved to Bishkek as the COVID-19 threat intensified, but on 29 February, the Kyrgyzstan capital pulled out from hosting the event as the local government cancelled all sporting activities.

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File image of Pooja Dhanda. WFI

"I think there should be a trial once normalcy returns. There is one full year before the Olympics and it has never happened that a qualifier is held so early," Pooja told Firstpost on Thursday.

The 26-year-old is not the only grappler for whom the Olympics postponement has come as a saviour. Wrestlers such as Sakshi Malik, Sushil Kumar, and Narsingh Yadav have all, at various moments, expressed their interest to stake fresh claim at the Qualifiers. The Wrestling Federation of India, however, is yet to give an official word on trials.

"We will talk about it with the federation, but I think the federation will announce trials on their own. Not just me, the likes of Sushil Kumar and Narsingh Yadav want to make a comeback, so I think there should be fresh trials for qualifiers," the 2018 World Championships bronze medallist said.

Currently confined to her home in Haryana's Hisar district, Pooja is keeping herself in shape through light-to-moderate weight training, bodyweight exercises, and cardio workout. Her day begins at 6:30 am and her morning workout lasts about 90 minutes.

"I have a customised schedule that targets specific muscle groups on specific days; so one day I do upper body, next day lower body, then core, glutes, and so on. I have some light weights at my place and a cycle, so I can do some light weight training and cardio. Bodyweight exercises are a big part of my schedule too," she explained.

There's also an hour reserved for yoga and meditation in the evening. "Yoga is something that I have started fairly recently. Earlier, I could never give it much time because of extensive matwork, but now that there is no skill-based workout as such barring some shadow training, I can give more time to yoga and meditation. I mostly do some breathing and core exercises which keeps me in good mental space," the Arjuna Awardee said.

February's Asian Wrestling Championship was the last international competition for the Indians before the lockdown was imposed, and despite a creditable performance by the hosts, some glaring weaknesses shone through — chief among them being ground wrestling and leg defence.

India's brightest Olympic prospects — Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat — couldn't bag the yellow metal and were taken down by their respective Japanese opponents who targeted their aforementioned weaknesses.

Pooja, who has in past, spoken on the importance of ground wrestling, said the national camps now are far more focussed on such key improvement areas and the results should show at international meets soon.

"Ground wrestling and leg defence have been our traditional problems, but we are focussing a lot more on these areas now. In our most recent national camp, there was an increased emphasis on these aspects and proper schedules were made to iron out these chinks. Once we resume proper training, we'll carry on with this targetted training and you'll see the results too," she said.

The lockdown has also given Pooja enough time to sift through videos of her likely international opponents, and though she didn't name one particular challenger, it will be a safe guess that Risako Kawai would feature among the top searches. The 25-year-old Japanese, after winning an Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in the 63 kg class, has steadily moved to lower weights and has been winning medals at the world stage with alarming consistency. She currently competes in the 57 kg class — the same as Pooja — and is the reigning world and Asian gold medallist in her chosen category.

Kawai's lightning speed and mat awareness are not uncommon among other world-class Japanese wrestlers such as Risako's sister Yukako, Vinesh's nemesis Mayu Mukaida and Bajrang's bugbear Takuto Otoguro. Pooja, a skilled wrestler herself, credited Japanese wrestlers' pace for their success.

"The Japanese, especially women, move very fast on the mat," she said.

"Their attacks are very quick and their pace unsettles not just Indians but wrestlers across the world, especially women. Their movements are quick and they move around the ring all the time. Indian wrestlers are very good on the attack, but we struggle a bit when it comes to defence and this one-year gap before the Games should be enough for us to address this weakness."

Pooja, however, rated young challengers very highly and said the future of Indian wrestling is bright with a steady influx of talent. It must be noted that Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi was beaten by another upstart, Sonam Malik, at the same trials where Anshu pipped Pooja.

"I am really impressed with these youngsters. These are very talented and driven. Also, they are getting excellent facilities, knowledge and sponsors early in their careers, which is very important. There is a proper support system. A lot of things have changed since we were juniors.

"Earlier, there was no proper injury management or rehab, but that is not the case anymore. All this helps the talent to flourish and I am very happy to see the likes of Sonam and Anshu come through the ranks," she concluded.

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