“Do you think I’ll make it to the Olympics?” asks Neetu. It’s the first thing she says when she takes a water break after two hours of practice at the Chotu Ram Stadium wrestling academy in Haryana, a small state in the north of India.
Haryana, which sits roughly 45 miles (75km) from New Delhi, has a long tradition of wrestling, with akharas – the sport’s special mud pits – set up in villages all around the state. For many generations, in what is considered one of the most conservative parts of India, wrestling has been the preserve of men. But now women are pushing aside cultural prejudices to take up the sport, even if it means facing scorn from their communities and, sometimes, their own families.
Neetu, who thinks she is 22 years old and prefers to be known only by her first name, is one of the hardest-working wrestlers at the Chotu Ram academy, says her coach. In a sense, she has been fighting her entire life. Married at 13 to a middle-aged mentally disabled man, Neetu ran away a few days later. To avoid a backlash from their community, her parents arranged another marriage for her. Within a year, at the age of 14, she gave birth to twin sons.
One day, five years ago, Neetu saw a wrestling match on television and decided she wanted to take up the sport. At first, her husband didn’t take her seriously, she says, but he quickly saw how determined she was. Today, she makes the three-hour round trip from her village to the Chotu Ram stadium in Rohtak city every day. She has competed in tournaments and won a silver medal at India’s 35th National Games in 2015. She uses her prize money to supplement the income her husband gets from doing odd jobs.
Like Neetu, most of the female wrestlers at Chotu Ram – there are around 35 of them – come from poor families and struggle to pay for their sporting careers. Many cannot afford to buy the fruit, nuts, meat and dairy products needed to sustain the diet of a professional wrestler.
For parents who work as farmers or day laborers, paying for the clothing and shoes their daughters need to wrestle can be financially crippling. The cost, on top of the cultural stigma, means many girls face opposition from their families when they declare an interest in wrestling.
Dinesh Sangwan is just 16 and taller than most of her peers. She left home two years ago and moved to Rohtak by herself to train at Chotu Ram. “My father was hesitant about letting me stay by myself in the city and do wrestling,” she says. “When he saw us here at Chotu Ram and realized that so many girls are wrestling, he approved.”
Moving to the city alone is a daunting step for a village girl from Haryana, where it is deemed unacceptable for a woman to work outside the home and unmarried women rarely move out of their parents’ house. But Sangwan is unfazed. “I want to win gold at the Olympics. It’s the biggest thing in the world for me,” she says before rushing off to push a truck tire across the training ground.
Winning the Olympics is the holy grail for every wrestler in Haryana. But success in any major tournament brings with it fame, money and respect.
In 2016, six sister wrestlers from Balali village in Haryana’s Bhiwani district shot to national fame after the release of a Bollywood film based on their lives. The Phogat Sisters – Geeta, Babita, Priyanka, Ritu, Vinesh and Sangeeta – have collectively won medals at a slew of national and international tournaments, including the Commonwealth Games, World Wrestling Championships, Asian Games and Asia Wrestling Championships.
The female wrestlers of Haryana also have an icon in Sakshi Malik, who in 2016 became the first Indian woman to bag a wrestling medal at the Olympics. Her bronze in the 58kg category earned her instant fame across India and hefty cash bonuses from the state government and local sports bodies. The 24-year-old now trains at the Chotu Ram stadium where Haryana’s young female wrestlers look to her for their inspiration.
But the women at Chotu Ram who are not already married know that, at some point, their families will force them to put their careers on hold. Some of them hope their future husbands and in-laws will let them keep wrestling; others think that if they build a successful wrestling career now, they might be able to persuade their parents to let them delay marriage until they are older.
Ritu Malik, 23 (no relation to Sakshi), is considered one of the most promising wrestlers at Chotu Ram. She has been wrestling since she was a teenager, when she discovered the sport at a hostel where she was studying. She won her first gold medal at the school national games in 2008 and went on to be a gold medalist at the National Games in India.
Six months ago, Ritu married another wrestler, who supports her career. But she knows that most of her fellow female wrestlers have to constantly fight against prejudice just to stay in the sport.
“If society differentiates between boys and girls, then that will reflect in sports as well,” she says. “People need to change their mindset. We women are changing mindsets just by being wrestlers.”
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.