Moulded in mud, Divya Kakran ready to take down the world


A week ago, unless you knew exactly what you were looking for, it would have been easy to walk right past the Guru Premnath akhara.

The drab three-storey grey building in which the wrestling school is run looks like any other in the working class North Delhi neighbourhood of Shakti Nagar. Not anymore.

Now, you can't miss the billboard newly erected on the wall of the akhara. "Congratulations to Divya Kakran for winning a silver medal at the Asian Championships," it proclaims in Hindi next to a photograph of the 19-year-old girl, grinning even as she bites down on the medal she won in the women's 69kg freestyle on May 13.

Divya's success in the tournament has now brought TV crews to the akhara. They all want to talk about her silver. Although she still has another two years in which she can compete as a junior, Divya is already considered among the brightest prospects as a senior.

This year, she was included in the list of athletes who will be sponsored by the sports ministry's Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), focusing on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the akhara, she is the only one who wears Asics wrestling boots - the brand worn by her idol Jordan Burroughs. She bought them from Bulgaria a month ago, when traveling with the Indian team. When she goes shopping for T-shirts and track pants, the store owner refuses to accept payment. "Bring your medal and click a picture with me," he says.

By any account, it has been a great start in her first year competing as a senior. Not if you are Divya, though. "Pichla saal ekdam ghatiya raha hai (It's been a terrible year)," she says.

On May 20, 2016, almost a year to the day she won the biggest medal of her career, Divya thought her career was over.

Divya had already won the junior nationals and the national inter-university tournament. She subsequently won the selection trials to represent the national team for the Asian Junior Championships. Divya had also won gold at the cadet age group of the same tournament and a bronze in the junior event in 2015. An upgrade to gold was expected.

However, during a practice session at the national camp in Lucknow, Divya's left leg was sharply twisted - deliberately, she says - by a sparring partner she had beaten at the selection trials. "I couldn't move my knee. I thought it was all over. That I would never wrestle again," she says.

When doctors in Delhi told her she would need surgery, her father Suraj decided to get a second opinion. "I spoke to other wrestlers and they told me to take her to Kokilaben Hospital in Mumbai," he says.

Money is tight in the cramped family home Divya shares with her parents and two brothers. Suraj's wife Sanyogita would stitch langots - the cotton loin-cloth that all Indian wrestlers wear - and Suraj would sell them at dangals - the traditional wrestling tournament of India.

In the past, Divya would supplement the family income by wrestling against boys at dangals, but her injury put a halt to that. So as he had many times in the past, Suraj took a loan from a money lender in his East Delhi neighbourhood of Gokulpur, to get his daughter the medical help she needed.

Doctors in Mumbai said surgery would not be needed but they prescribed physiotherapy and bed rest, which meant absolutely no wrestling. "Samjho ek saal ekdum kharab gaya (It was as if one year went to waste)," explains Divya.

It would be five months before she even stepped on a mat again - at the Delhi State championships in October. With absolutely no practice, she won the tournament and then decided to compete at her first senior nationals later that month. It was a huge step up; one made harder after she suffered a bout of dengue before the competition.

"It was as if god was having fun and deciding to give me one injury after the other," she jokes now. But back then she didn't think much of it. "I had so much confidence in myself that I thought I would simply show up and win. I hadn't even trained on the mat before it. I never considered the competition in India seriously. But that pride had to be broken at some point."

Indeed, even after her strength had been sapped by the illness, Divya decided to cut weight further. Having had most of her success in the 69kg division, Divya decided to compete in the 63kg class. It was not a decision that Vikram Singh, her coach at the Guru Premnath akhara, agreed with.

"I didn't agree with her choice but I decided not to stop her. She needed to make a mistake on her own early in her career," he says.

In her first tournament as a senior, Divya lost in the first round to an opponent who was still a junior herself. "After I lost I felt, main to bahut peeche chali gai (I have fallen behind the competition). I was comparing myself to the seniors and here I had lost to a girl in the juniors," she recalls. It was a shock that would jolt her out of her complacency. "When I returned after that I trained out of fear. I didn't want to get left behind."

"I couldn't move my knee. I thought it was all over. That I would never wrestle again"

But Vikram knew her enthusiasm on the mat wasn't necessarily a good thing.

"Her knee was still healing so we had to be very careful how we trained. Every time she would train, we would have three coaches watching over her. The moment we felt there was a hyperextension about to happen we would stop and restart."

As a result, Vikram didn't even allow her to train at anything close to full intensity for several weeks after her failure at the nationals. "We had to build her confidence and her strength. So I would have her train against the 40 and 50 kilo boys."

Changes were made to her diet. After being advised by doctors that she needed to include animal protein if she wanted to speed up her recovery, Divya became the first member of her family to eat meat, prepared by her father - the first member of her family to cook it. "In the past, it was my inner strength that was helping me wrestle. Now it is a goat's strength that's helping me," she jokes.

Most significantly, Vikram stopped Divya from wrestling in dangals, explaining how the sticky mud was putting unacceptable stress on her knee.

"Wrestling against boys was what I was known for once. But that is an old chapter of my life. I want different things now. It is about winning bigger things," she says.

In March this year, Divya picked up her first win against a senior wrestler at a national level tournament. Her opponent Jyoti - a three-time medalist in the women's 75kg category at the Asian Championships - was conquered twice inside a week.

While those wins boosted her self-belief, the second victory bore more significance: It came in a selection trial to pick the Delhi representative for the Bharat Kesri Dangal - a mat wrestling competition organised by the Haryana government with a cash award of Rs 10 lakh. Divya used that money to pay off her family loans.

Victory also brought a level of respect at the national camp. As a girl from the lower caste Sain community, Divya admits she has dealt with resentment and bullying from other wrestlers, mostly from the dominant Jat caste.

"In the past, people would tell me anything, make fun of me and go. I used to feel bad and sometimes I would cry because I didn't get why they treated me that way, and I couldn't tell them anything. Now I don't need to tell anything," she says.

Divya keeps to herself at the camp now. Her older brother Dev has been a regular by her side and when she isn't training, the siblings often discuss mat-craft.

That obsession with her game has clearly had a positive impact.

"Divya has grown as a wrestler over the last year. She understands her game so much better now than she used to," Vikram says. He explains with the example of her favourite wrestling manoeuvre - the kalajang, or reverse fireman's carry.

Every wrestler of repute has a go-to daav (manoeuvre); Divya's is the kalajang, a move that requires her to slip below her opponent's stance, control their elbow with one hand and knee with the other, and roll them onto their back for a pin.

In her first bout of the Asian Championships, against Chen-Chi Huang, Divya didn't even get control of her opponent's knee, yet pulled off the kalajang.

"It has become part of her muscle memory now. Even if she doesn't have everything perfectly in place, she can adapt. She has already started developing variations on the kalajang," Vikram says.

Of course, the problem with having a favourite move is that you can become predictable. In her second bout of the Asian Championships, South Korea's Park Hyeonyeong kept her feet together as far from Divya's reaching fingers as possible. "And when she did that, Divya instead decided to go for the double-leg takedowns. And she was able to get them. She knows what to do if her first plan isn't working," Vikram adds.

Divya also knows she is a long way from being competitive with the best in the world. In her final bout against Olympic Champion Sara Dosho, she was pinned in four minutes. "When I competed against the Japanese, I realised how far behind her I was. She was so much stronger than me," she recalls.

But there isn't any resignation about her prospects. "She was very good but she isn't unbeatable. She is older than me so she has many more years of training. If I continue working hard, there's no reason, I shouldn't be at her level or better. If I have to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, I will have to beat her right?"

Divya says her silver was the appropriate medal for her to win at this stage of her career.

"I was expecting a bronze, but I got silver. I think it was for the best. If I had got gold, I would get an attitude that I am the best and that I don't need to do anything. This time god has given me silver and said, 'I've taken you this far, now you need to take it to the next level'. Thodi lalach di hai (I've become a little greedy now).

"With one defeat I was so disappointed in the past. Now with each victory, it feels as if I am getting closer to the Olympics."

There are significant milestones she will have to cross to get to that goal, including the Asian and Commonwealth Games next year, and the World Championships this August.

But for now, her sights are set on the Junior Asian Championships, where she has unfinished business.

"I was supposed to compete in this tournament last year but I got into so much problem because of it. It's a year late but I'm going to get a gold medal here."