India's 'Generation Tokyo' boxers take centrestage at AIBA Youth Championships
When Sunday comes, the future of India's women’s boxing will take centrestage. The competition they face in the ring will be tough, but it’s nothing compared to the odds they have already defied in getting to where they are right now.
It would seem that everything that could have gone wrong in Vanlalhriatpuii's life did so in 2014, the year she turned 14.
Her parents, bickering with each other for months, finally decided to separate. What's more, with her father in between driving jobs and her mother a housewife, finances were already at stretching point. With things falling apart, young Vanlalhriatpuii and her three siblings were left to fend for themselves, with even a single meal a day seeming like a luxury. Soon enough, Puii's elder sister was packed off to relatives while uncertainty hung over the rest of the children as the parents now fought over who should take care of them.
Just as the doors of the house seemed to be closing on Puii, the proverbial window opened. A friend of her brother told her about the district boxing trials which were to be held in the vicinity. Those selected would be trained at the Sports Authority of Mizoram's centre in Aizawl. More importantly, it would put a roof over the head of anyone selected — not to mention the four square meals that trainees were entitled to.
Having practised wushu in her formative years, the switch to boxing was not too difficult. The decision to take part at the trials, even less so.
It didn't take long for the scouts to be impressed by Vanlalhriatpuii, so much so that Mizoram Boxing Association took her under their wings and decided to sponsor her.
Puii understandably abhors talking about her parents or the discord back home. But talk about boxing and her happiness seeps through, the patchy telephone line and the halting English notwithstanding.
"Earlier my father never allowed me to get into the ring and fight. But then when I was with my mother, she encouraged me to box. I love to box and want to fight at the Olympics," Puii tells Firstpost over the phone from Guwahati where, Sunday (19 November), she will walk into the boxing ring wearing India colours as the 2017 AIBA Youth Women’s World Boxing Championships begin.
Accompanying Puii, who fights in the 60 kg weight class, will be nine other girls from the country, all of whom have had to fight against the odds to make it to the national team.
Take Jyoti for example, who grew up a few thousand kilometres away from Puii in Jhajjar — a district in Haryana not too far from Rohtak, which found itself in the spotlight last year when local girl Sakshi Malik claimed a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics. While Sakshi had the backing of her parents to get into wrestling, Jyoti's parents were dead against the notion of their daughter taking up any sport, let alone one which involved her courting bodily harm and facial injuries.
But Jyoti had her heart set on the sport. So she would sneak out under some pretext or the other.
In a state famously governed by the iron-will of patriarchal khap panchayats, it was surprisingly the sarpanch who turned out to be the guardian angel. He had a small piece of land where he'd set up a makeshift boxing academy. The facilities were hardly top-notch, but were enough for Jyoti to learn the ropes of the sport.
"There were over a 100 of us training there at one point. We had boxing gloves which the sarpanch had bought. And there was just one punching bag all of us shared. So we kept sparring amongst ourselves with time on the punching bag very rare. But we fought daily," recalls Jyoti.
She got so good in just one year of training that she was picked to represent her district at the state championships.
"That's when my parents found out. They were furious. But the sarpanch convinced them of my potential," she adds.
Today, she's one of India's best medal hopes at the AIBA Youth Championships, her credentials firmly established by the gold medal the 51 kg pugilist won at the 6th Golden Glove Boxing Tournament in Serbia and further burnished by the twin silvers she earned at the 31st International Ahmet Comert Boxing Tournament in Istanbul and the 2013 National Games.
Another competitor from Haryana, Neetu, who competes in the 48 kg event, wants to win gold at the competition as a repayment for the sacrifices of her father, who fought against their extended family for his daughter's dream to play the "masculine sport". Once that fight was won, Neetu very quickly got good enough to catch the eye of boxing coach Jagdish Singh, the man who gave the world boxers like Beijing Olympics bronze medallist Vijender Singh and Akhil Kumar.
But there was another snag.
Neetu's family lived in Dhanana, some 20 kilometres away from Bhiwani, which has established itself as the hub of Indian boxing. Letting their teenage daughter travel that distance alone everyday was not an option. So, Neetu's father did something radical: he quit his steady job at the Chandigarh Vidhan Sabha.
"The travel was not always safe, particularly for a young girl. Even the buses were very infrequent. So my father quit his job so that he could travel with me to Bhiwani every day, where two training sessions were held daily. My father would wait back the whole day and then accompanied me home in the evenings. We have a small farm, so sustenance was not a problem," she says.
The tenacity of the girls has left an impact on Italian Raffaele Bergamasco, who took up the performance director’s position with Boxing Federation of India in July this year and has been working with the Indian youth girls team along with chief coach Bhaskar Bhatt.
“These girls have impressed me a lot with their spirit and attitude of not giving up. In my country (Italy) there are systems and a structure in place but these girls have the heart and grit that sets them apart,” Bergamasco tells Firstpost. He was part of the coaching contingent for the Italian boxing team in three successive Olympics — Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio — before taking up the India job, where his first challenge will be to oversee the host nation’s campaign at the 2017 AIBA Youth Women’s World Boxing Championships — a new chapter for the sport in India for more reasons than one.
The tournament is an indicator that things are getting back on track in Indian boxing — after all, this will be the first elite AIBA competition held in India since 2006, although India did host the 2010 Commonwealth Championships in the lead-up to the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi seven years ago.
For the boxers, the tournament represents the first step down the road that could lead to the Tokyo Olympics in three years' time. Being branded by boxing's world governing body, AIBA, as 'Generation Tokyo', this will be the batch of boxers India will look at to fill the void once the Mary Koms and L Sarita Devis hang up their gloves. While Mary, who will be 37 by the time Tokyo 2020 comes along, has expressed her desire to compete in one last Olympics before walking off into the sunset, she will face stiff competition from boxers who will be in action at Guwahati. Mary has been fittingly named as the ambassador for the current event.
The competition has in the past been the stepping stone for Olympic medallists like USA’s two-time Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields (2013), Italy’s Irma Testa (2013) and Russia’s Anastasia Beliakova (2011). Since 2011, India have won seven medals at the competition — two golds, one silver and four bronze.
“The players who will be participating in the championships are future prospects for most countries and the competition in my opinion will be very strong and close. Some of the countries to look out for are Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Asian countries like China. I will also not discount the English and the French teams,” says Bergamasco.
While Bhatt predicted “two or three medals at the event”, Bergamasco is restrained in talking up the chances of the Indians before the event starts.
“I am a superstitious Italian and wouldn't want to speculate how many medals we can win. But I can tell you one thing, India can throw in some big surprises especially in the lower weight categories, from 48 kg to 60 kg.
“India has good chances of winning medals. We have trained very hard for the championships and each of the boxers have been working on their intensity since the competition is short. I have the backing of a very able team of coaches and support staff who have analysed the players individually. The girls have improved tactically and technically, with their feet movement getting better,” says the Italian.
“Yes, we have worked a lot on their ring movement. But the biggest improvement has been on the players’ dietary habits. Earlier, players would just pile on food on their plates and gorge on things like paneer thinking it was healthy protein. Not anymore. They all have prescribed diets,” Bhatt adds.
On Sunday, the future of Indian women’s boxing will take centrestage. The competition they face in the ring will be tough, but it’s nothing compared to the odds they have already defied in getting to where they are right now.
Here's the complete schedule of Tokyo Olympics 2020 involving Indian athletes on 29 July.
An unprecedented nine Indian boxers would be vying for medals at the showpiece, where none could secure a podium finish in the 2016 edition.
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