<
>

'I look at all the girls who started wrestling with me and they all stay at home and look after their children'

Julian Finney/Getty Images

Rupinder Kaur was particularly disappointed - perhaps almost as much as the competitors who missed out - at the conclusion of the selection trials for the Indian women's wrestling team for the Commonwealth Games. She had been rooting for one wrestler in particular, who ultimately didn't make the cut. "I was really hoping that Navjot Kaur would be selected to the Indian team," says Kaur.

Navjot, amongst India's most experienced wrestlers, would go on to become the first Indian woman to win gold at the Asian Championships last month. At the selection trials though, she was beaten to a spot in the team.

Rupinder, who will be representing Australia in the women's 50kg freestyle wrestling division at Gold Coast, wasn't awaiting the results in her role as a competitor. She had a more personal stake in the matter. "Navjot is a really close friend of mine. The two of us had been talking about the Commonwealth Games for many months now. I had been making plans on showing her the country for a few weeks after the games," says Kaur.

Rupinder's friendship with Navjot goes back a long way. Much before she became the premier Australian wrestler in her category or even before she arrived in the country in 2007. All the way back to before the turn of the century when she first started wrestling in the village of Anandpur Sahib in Tarn Taran, Punjab. Those were early days of women's wrestling in India, the events immortalized by the blockbuster Dangal were still a decade away.

Rupinder had been introduced to wrestling by a physical Instruction teacher at the Guru Arjan Dev School. But while the teenager was eager to learn a new sport and was backed by her father, the neighbours in the village weren't nearly as supportive.

"Back then, wrestling was still seen as something women weren't supposed to do. The first time I saw a wrestling costume, I was shocked. I couldn't imaging competing in public in a skin-tight dress. When I returned from training at the school, people would pass comments on what I was doing out so late," she recalls.

That she did continue wrestling was largely due to Navjot's family. "Their house was near the school. So when I had to train, I would go and stay at their home after school instead of having to come back to my own home," she says. The bond between the two would only grow stronger. "We supported each other and we became like sisters. We would go for weddings in each other's families too," she says.

By the time Navjot started wrestling, Rupinder-five years older-- was considered a senior. "I had started before her. So when Navjot started to wrestle, I would help her out. At the start, I was the one who coached her," she recalls.

Rupinder enjoyed her share of success. At 17, she won a silver medal at the National Games in Hyderabad in 2002. "I represented the Indian cadet team at a competition in Turkey where I won gold too," she recalls. But just when her career was about to take off, Rupinder decided to follow another path. "I thought I would go on and be a wrestler in India. I never really thought about going. A friend of mine really wanted to go to Australia and see the world. And she convinced me to join her too. So I came to Australia to study."

Rupinder had planned to continue her wrestling career too but found it harder than she expected. "In India I was used to concentrating entirely on wrestling. My family was always there to support me. In Australia I had to manage everything on my own. I had to find a place to wrestle, which took me nearly half a year. Then I had to study, then work at a job and only after that find a place to train."

It was a brutally punishing schedule. "I was sleeping maybe three or four hours a night for the first few years," she recalls. It was even harder when she missed out on the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where women's wrestling made it's debut. "When I first came to Australia, I thought I would study here for two years and then return to India and continue my wrestling career. So when I missed the Commonwealth Games, that too in India, I was very disappointed."

She did persist and was eventually granted Australian citizenship in 2012 and won her first national title that same year. Rupinder would also qualify for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, but a miscalculation in her weight cut saw her miss out on her preferred 48kg weight category. "Instead I participated in the 53kg weight division, but I did very poorly there."

Although she vowed to improve on that dismal performance, fate nearly decided otherwise once again. Having got married ahead of the Commonwealth Games, she delivered her first child - daughter Sahib - the following year. "I had Sahib through C section. At that point I thought my career was over once again. I was weighing nearly 70 kilos. But wrestling is such an important part of my life. Andar keeda jaise hai (as if there's a fire burning within me), so I thought let me give it another try."

The comeback trail was hard, although unlike the troublesome neighbours of her childhood, she only had curious kindergartners watching this time around. "I teach in a pre-school now. So all the children would point to the bruises on my face and ask where I got them." The hard work eventually payed off and Rupinder won the Australian National Championships in May 2017 to earn the right to represent her country once again at the Gold Coast Games.

She's giving this tournament her all. Daughter Sahib was sent back to India, so that she could focus entirely on the Commonwealth Games. At 33, she is amongst the oldest female competitors at Gold Coast and where she once felt she had given up her wrestling career by making the move to Australia, she now reckons it gave her a shot she might not have had if she stayed in India. "I look at all the girls who started wrestling with me and they all stay at home and look after their children. I have an opportunity to wrestle even today. If I had stayed in India, I wouldn't have had that opportunity."

She's had a bit of success heading into the tournament too. She won a bronze at the Commonwealth Championships in December after having participated in her maiden World Championships in August. She had met the Indian team there but her closest friend Navjot was absent on both ocassions. "The only time we could meet each other is during international competitions. So the other players of the Indian team would joke and tell me that my friend isn't coming to meet me."

It's going to be that way in Gold Coast too. But while Rupinder is focused on next month's competition, she has hopes to catch up with Navjot at the biggest stage of them all. "I've told her to stay strong and focused. She has plenty of talent and if my bones stay intact perhaps we could meet each other at the 2020 Olympics too."