With the national camp for the World Championships set to begin next Monday, Neeraj Phogat, who will be India's representative in the women's 57kg division, has been given a few days off. She could have gone home to her family in the village of Jhinjhar in Haryana's Dadri district but has decided to keep her focus on her sport. She will be headed to Bhiwani, where she will train under coach Sanjay Kumar at the Hawa Singh boxing academy.
On the 15th of August, Neeraj will practise as usual but will also spare some time for family duties on the occasion of Raksha Bandhan. "She will do a pooja (ritual) for me and tie a rakhi on me and I will give her a gift," says her elder brother Hitesh.
Little, says Neeraj, can match up to the support he's given her. "It's his belief that has helped me get to where I am," she says of her brother, older to her by five years. She is now amongst India's best prospects going into the Olympic year. A two-time national champion, she's won gold medals at the India Open in February and the Ali Umakhanov memorial earlier this month - beating the 2016 World Champion Alessia Messiano enroute to the latter title. Her recent wins in Russia and then at the selection trials - where among others she beat World Championship silver medalist Sonia Lather-- have only increased her self belief.
The 24-year-old credits much of those achievements to her brother. "I wouldn't even have started boxing if it wasn't for him," says Neeraj. She began remarkably late after all - only in her first year of college. It was her brother who insisted she do so.
"In our family we have a lot of wrestlers and my father wanted at least one of his children to be a sportsperson," she says. Hitesh was expected to be that athlete. He wrestled at the local akhara (arena) and participated in the Haryana state championships. At just 22-though, his career was cut short as he snapped the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in his knee.
While his chances had ended, he now decided his sister had to be a sportsperson. Neeraj wasn't enamoured of the idea. "I had gone to the akhara a few times with my brother but I never wanted to wrestle. I hated having to step on the dirt," she says. An acquaintance of one of Hitesh's coaches had started a boxing academy around that time and he suggested to his sister that she box.
Unlike many of her compatriots these days, Neeraj wasn't a natural. "Everyone who was training along with me, had been competing since they were 11 or 12 years old. I took a lot more time to pick anything up and I didn't even have any strength," she says.
Even her first coach was dismissive. "After two years she hadn't even won anything at the district level. She would go for a competition and just take a beating. Her coach told me my sister didn't have any future as a boxer. She used to cry every time the coach said that," says Hitesh. That lit a fire under him. "I decided I would make my sister a boxer. I didn't know anything about boxing but as a wrestler I knew how to get someone physically fit. She might have been a late starter but mehnat karne ka koi time nahi hota (It's never to late to do hard work)," he says.
It was grueling period of tough love for Neeraj. "I got into boxing because I felt it would be easier than wrestling but my brother really worked me hard. I had a habit of backing away if I was in a bout. But if he saw that I wasn't fighting back during sparring, he would whack me with a stick on my legs. I hated it at first but it made a difference," she says.
Those demanding sessions eventually paid off. Within a year she managed to win her university championships and later won the national inter-university title. As her standard improved, she, along with her brother, rented a room in Bhiwani in order to train at the Captain Hawa Singh Academy with better sparring partners.
In 2016, she won her first national title in the 51kg category, beating former world junior champion Nikhat Zareen in the semifinals. She joined the national camp soon after and then won her first international title at the sixth nations Cup tournament in Serbia at the start of 2017. But just as her career graph seemed set to take off, she plateaued. She lost in the quarterfinals of the 2017 Asian Championships and was dropped from the national camp the following year. "It was the worst time of my life. But no one supported me like my brother did," she recalls.
To boost her morale, Hitesh bought home-style food for her and made her the crushed nut post-workout drink favoured by wrestlers. But Neeraj sank further. Sick with typhoid, she competed and lost at the Haryana state championships. It took her half a year training in Bhiwani to find her form again. "My brother and coach said 'aaja beta tujhe firse banate hain' (Come back we will make you once again)" she says.
There she reworked her technique and moved three weight divisions up to the 60kg division. "She was down on her confidence. I didn't know too much about boxing but I kept motivating her with stories about (Olympic wrestlers) Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt and Narsingh Yadav," says Hitesh.
She returned to the national camp with a gold medal in the 60kg division at the 2019 nationals. Doubts over whether she had the physical strength at that category caused her to drop back down to the 57kg division, where she announced herself once again with a gold at the India Open. "That was the turning point for me. I was only the fifth-highest ranked boxer in that category, so I wasn't originally supposed to be playing at that tournament but luckily for me they increased the number of Indian participants to six (it had originally been four). That win gave me the confidence once again," she says.
She's leaving little to chance as she continues to prepare in Bhiwani. And her brother is right there beside her. "In the morning, I'll crush almonds and make a drink for her and I'll cut the vegetables and prepare her meals too. Her only job will be to keep her focus on her boxing. If I as a brother don't do what my sister needs to get to the top, who is going to do that," he says.