Feature

Pooja Dhanda: The Judoka who took the wrestling mat to success

Having drawn into judo at a very young age, the Indian wrestler switched to wrestling on the advice of a local coach despite considerable success. But the result has been no different. 

By Saurabh Shankar ·

The state of Haryana has been a hotbed for Indian wrestling since the past few decades, giving the nation several champions like Yogeshwar Dutt, Sushil Kumar and Geeta Phogat. While many aspects can be attributed to Haryana’s brilliant showings in Indian wrestling, a rich sporting culture that celebrates pehelwani and the abundance of akharas (wrestling pits) is the biggest of them.

Despite growing up surrounded by wrestlers and akharas, India’s Pooja Dhanda wasn’t bitten by the wrestling bug early on. In fact, judo was her first sporting love. She switched her sport only as a teenager on the advice of a reputed wrestling coach of India. The decision paid dividends for Pooja, as she achieved a lot of success as a grappler, augmenting India’s popularity towards women’s wrestling.

Pooja Dhanda (left) won a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

Judo champion Pooja Dhanda

Pooja Dhanda was born in Hisar district’s Budana village to Ajmer and Kamlesh Dhanda. Her father, Ajmer, was a truck driver for the Haryana Animal Husbandry centre in Hisar, while her mother was a housewife. She was inspired to take up sports due to her father who used to be an athlete himself.

Judo being the first love for a young Pooja Dhanda, she was very successful as a judo player, winning three International medals. However, despite their laurels, Dhanda decided to move on from judo after a conversation with former Indian wrestler and coach Kripa Shankar Bishnoi, who encouraged her to switch to a career in wrestling. 

The youngster tried her hand at this new sport and found herself quickly grasping the different techniques of wrestling, soon realising that she could make a career for herself in the sport. 

Pooja Dhanda’s Wrestling career

Dhanda switched to wrestling in 2009, and since then there has been no looking back. She participated in the 2010 Youth Olympics held in Singapore and bagged a silver medal in the girl’s 60kg freestyle category. She made her maiden appearance at the World Wrestling Championships in 2013 but suffered an early elimination after losing her bout against Iryna Husyak of Ukraine. 

The following few months were more fruitful for the young wrestler, which was highlighted by her win in the National Wrestling Championships, where she beat Babita Phogat in the final. She also bagged a bronze medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Astana. Her wrestling career was looking bright until she suffered a bad ligament injury in 2015, and was forced to undergo surgery that kept her away from the game for a long period. 

“It was a phase I cannot forget easily. There were times when I could stand properly. Those two years derailed my wrestling career, but I was determined to return to the mat and soon made my comeback in the 2017 Pro Wrestling League,”  revealed Pooja Dhanda in an interview to the news website, The Bridge.

She was on the verge of quitting the sport, but her parents and coach Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi kept her motivated during these difficult times. It was her coach that helped her find a physiotherapist in Mumbai, and from thereon, began her comeback journey. Dhanda took nearly two years to make it back to the wrestling mat, but once she made her comeback, the young grappler was back to her mercurial best.

The comeback

Pooja Dhanda announced her return to the wrestling mat with a bang as she won the National Championships in 2017. Her best moments, however, were still ahead of her, as in 2018 she managed to upstage the reigning Olympic champion

Helena Maroulis in the Pro Wrestling League. In that same competition, she also defeated World Championships silver medallist Marwa Amri of Tunisia. 

Riding on that form, Dhanda went on to win a silver medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, losing a closely contested final against Odunayo Adekuoroye of Nigeria. A few months on, she bagged a bronze at the World Wrestling Championships in the women’s 57kg category. 

Still only 26, Pooja Dhanda has a bright and promising future ahead of her. She has shown her ability to perform on the big stage in the past, not only as a wrestler but also as a judoka. Nonchalantly making a switch between sports, making comebacks from career-threatening injuries and winning medals on the global stage, Pooja Dhanda remains a real role model for India’s upcoming athletes.