Sangeeta Phogat was nervous ahead of her bout on Sunday night in the Pro Wrestling League. The 17-year-old -- the youngest in the league -- was wrestling only her second bout. She got a few words of encouragement from her older sister Babita. "It doesn't matter who's in front of you," Babita said. "Just give your best. Wrestle at 100%."
Sangeeta gave her best shot. She eventually fell short though, losing a 4-6 decision. And the wrestler whose hand was raised? Babita herself.
After recording the win, Babita smiled and waved to the crowd. She then hugged Sangeeta. Big sister to little sister.
Sibling contests may only be an infrequent feature in the sporting world, but they are a lot more common in the Phogat family. There are a lot more to go around, you see. Of the six sisters, five have competed internationally. With several of them sharing similar weight categories -- Vinesh and Ritu (48kg), Babita, Priyanka and Sangeeta (53kg) -- such contests are even more likely. Indeed, the sisters train together and Babita remembers father Mahavir Phogat telling them to get used to facing each other in competition. "Papa would say, 'Off the mat you may be sisters. On it, you've to wrestle to win,'" she says.
In the PWL alone, there have been three bouts featuring the sisters competing against each other. Last season Vinesh beat Ritu 8-0, while Babita beat Priyanka 6-4. Those two bouts though were between cousins -- Vinesh and Priyanka are Mahavir's nieces -- roughly the same age.
Sangeeta is 10 years younger than Babita. Her best result at the seniors is a bronze at last year's nationals. Babita, on the other hand, is an Olympian. She has a bronze at the worlds and a gold at the Commonwealth Games. "I had not even started wrestling when Babita was competing internationally," Sangeeta says.
But she has an advantage. "Being the youngest, I've been able to learn from all my sisters," Sangeeta says. "Geeta [the eldest and the first Indian woman wrestler to compete at the Olympics] taught me the importance of having a winning mindset. Vinesh is very strong in her technique and speed. From Babita I learned never to give up until the final point."
Babita smiles and describes the other advantage the youngster had. "I taught Sangeeta the basics," she says. "So she knows exactly what technique I'll use. Aur uska kaat bhi pata hai (And she knows the counter to it too)."
But while the youngster and the veteran have very similar styles -- for instance, both attack the opponent's right leg -- Babita still has the edge. "Babita has very strong arms," Sangeeta says. "She has built that strength over many years by climbing ropes. I still have a long way to go to match her strength and stamina."
Indeed while Sangeeta was quicker and got into great positions for a takedown, she was simply unable to lifter her older sister off the mat. The first time she did though was a special moment. "As a youngster you always dream about taking points from her," she says. "So the first time I did it, it made me feel really good."
Sangeeta says she knows Babita, who is wrestling in her first competition since the Rio Olympics, is not in the best shape. "Didi isn't wrestling at her best," she says. "If she was, perhaps I would lose 16-0!"
The wrestling done, Sangeeta says she will go back to being a regular little sister. "When we get back to the team hotel, Babita will makes sure I eat my food on time," she says.