Third time lucky - Pooja Rani puts past scars behind to qualify for Tokyo

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It might be argued that perhaps Pooja Rani had an easy draw. That, in a bit of fortune, there were increased quota spots on offer at the Asia Oceania Olympic qualifers in Amman, Jordan. That she had a bye in her first round and that the only opponent who stood between her and a spot in the Tokyo Olympics was the callow 18-year-old Pornnipa Chutee of Thailand. The giant smile on the Indian's face after she picked up a lopsided unanimous decision win, though, suggested none of that mattered.

After falling short in the qualification races the last two times, Rani was thrilled she was finally going to the Olympics on the third attempt.

"I'm 29 years old. I knew that If I didn't make it to the Olympics this time around, I wasn't going to get another chance. That was really scary to me," she says.

The pressure of knowing there weren't going to be many more opportunities was only one of the many burdens Rani was carrying going to Amman. "The thing is that when I was trying to qualify for the last two Olympics, I didn't struggle that much. I never had any injuries or anything. I always got what I worked for. The only time I have actually had to struggle was in the last four years. But it's all worth it now," she says.

Her difficult path to the 2020 Olympics began not long after her journey to the 2016 edition had ended. "After I'd missed qualification for Rio, I needed to take a break. I'd been away from my family for so long so I wanted to spend some time at home," she recalls.

She decided to spend Diwali that year with her family in Bhiwani. Having been a member of the national camp since 2010, she didn't always get to spend the holidays with family, now was the chance to make up for lost time. So when her nieces asked her to help light fireworks, she didn't think too much of it. It's a decision she would deeply regret.

"I was careless in lighting an anaar. It exploded in my left hand and I was severely burned. I was taken to a hospital right away and so they were able to save it, but that injury put me out of boxing for a year," she recalls.

Even as she waited for her hand to heal, Rani says she resumed training, throwing punches with her right hand. That in turn led to a muscle imbalance, and it was the turn of her right shoulder to be injured next. Another six months gone.

"It feels good to see all the people who never believed in me, who said the nastiest things about me when I wanted to start my career, or didn't support me when I needed it most, all coming to my home and congratulating my parents or messaging me" Pooja Rani

"That was perhaps the toughest time in my career. I was so close to giving up," she says. That she didn't was because of just how far she had already come and just how much she had to prove. "It was really difficult to start my boxing career itself. I was eighteen -- that's really late -- when I decided to start boxing. My father was unsupportive of my decision and most of my relatives were completely against it as well. My coach Sanjay Sheoran sir was able to convince my father but my relatives would say a girl learning to box with boys was completely against their culture," she recalls.

The reason coach Sheoran stood up for her though was simply because of the potential he had seen in her. "She was a complete natural as a boxer. She had incredible power. Even though she didn't have a lot of training, I could put her in the ring and I was sure she would knock out her opponent," Sheoran recalls.

Rani's prodigious talent rapidly converted to medals. Ahead of the 2012 Olympic qualifiers, Rani was seen as one of the favourites to earn a quota spot for India. "I was completely naive. I was so sure of my abilities that I didn't even think to study who I was going to box against. I just thought I'd get in the ring and beat them," she recalls. It was a bad idea. Her opponent was American Claressa Shields, who would go on to become a two-time Olympic gold medalist at middleweight.

Rani would shrug off that loss, and pad up her resume, winning three medals -- a silver and two bronzes at the Asian level -- as she prepared to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Once again, she would fall just short. That Olympic cycle was an altogether terrible one for Indian boxers; not a single woman qualified that year.

Two failed attempts might have been enough for some boxers to cut their losses but Rani vowed to press on. "I'd already come a long way. I couldn't just give up then," she says. Which is why she persisted through the injuries that took two productive years off her career.

The time she spent off the field wasn't all wasted. While she lost many fair weather friends, Rani says she was supported by the Lakshya sports organisation. "They helped me when a lot of people decided I was finished as a boxer. They provided me with a physiotherapist who helped me recover from my shoulder injury without getting surgery. They also provided me with a nutritionist who changed my diet to an all-vegetarian one now. I used to have a lot of difficulty managing my weight cut in the past, but it's got a lot easier in the past one year," Rani says.

The results have clearly shown as well. At the 2019 Asian Championships, the Indian won her first continental title. It was a result that helped her get a seeding at the Olympic qualifiers -- and in turn a favourable draw.

Having picked up the win, Rani is content simply to scroll her phone and get updates from her sister Poonam on who all have come to offer congratulations back home. "It feels good to see all the people who never believed in me, who said the nastiest things about me when I wanted to start my career, or didn't support me when I needed it most, all coming to my home and congratulating my parents or messaging me," she says.

Rani might have fulfilled her goal for the qualifiers but she isn't done yet. "When I came into the tournament my only target was to secure the Olympic qualification. But now I want to do better. My next opponent is a really good boxer [2016 Olympic bronze medalist Li Qian] from China. She's a really difficult opponent but I am going to be boxing completely freely now. It's as if a weight is off my shoulders," she says.