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Family is my main medal: Mariya Stadnik

Pro Wrestling League

For three-time Olympic medallist Mariya Stadnik, the highest-paid woman wrestler in the Pro Wrestling League, family is the top-most priority as she juggles a successful career with the demands of motherhood.

Her hair braided into austere cornrows, a brilliant dark bruise around her left eye (picked up in training) and a determined scowl on her face, Mariya Stadnik is a fearsome presence on the wrestling mat at New Delhi's KD Jadhav Stadium. Her first bout of the Pro Wrestling League (PWL) saw her blitzing top Indian prospect Ritu Phogat 16-0. She was blocked in her next bout. Her third bout, against Indu Choudhary, was another 16-0 blowout.

The results were expected. Stadnik is, after all, the highest-paid woman wrestler in the second edition of the PWL - bought for Rs 47 lakh. Even in a league that isn't short of big names, Stadnik, who competes in the 48kg category, stands apart. In addition to five gold medals at the European Championships, Mariya -- who was born in Ukraine but competes for Azerbaijan -- has four medals at the world championships, including a gold at the 2009 edition. She has competed in three Olympics, winning a bronze (Beijing) and two silver (London, Rio)

It's a prolific career. It's also one that Mariya, 28, balances with being a mother. The wallpaper on the screen of her phone is a picture of Mariya with her two children - Igor, 6, and Mia, 4.

Wrestling is a sport that demands monk-like levels of dedication and year-round training. Few men in the international circuit can balance the requirements of a family along with it. It's even rarer among women. Mariya, though, insists it is possible. "I don't think what I'm doing is anything special. A lot of famous people manage their family and professional life," she says. "I really love wrestling. I have the talent so I must use it as much as I can."

However, some compromises have had to be made. The only two years that she didn't medal -- 2010 and 2013 -- were the years Igor and Mia were born. It wasn't very long after their birth, though, that Stadnik returned to the mat. She won the 2011 European Championships only seven months after delivering Igor.

While there's no denying her dedication to her craft, Mariya gives a lot of credit to her husband and coach Andrei Stadnik. It helped that Andrei is a former Olympic silver medalist himself -- he beat Sushil Kumar en route to the final in Beijing. "He sometimes believes in me more than I believe in myself," she says. But Andrei helps out in the more mundane tasks as well. "When Igor was born, Andrei would put him to sleep before he went out to train. And when Mia was born, Andrei would take care of Igor all by himself," Mariya says.

While she has now gotten used to it, Mariya says she wasn't sure how she would deal with the challenges. "After Igor was born, I wasn't sure how well I would be able to wrestle again," she says.

This is why she rates her 2012 Olympic silver highly. "When I went to my first Olympics, I was very young. It was such a big experience. I was awed by it. So I didn't have time to realise what I had won. The second time I had just become a mother so I wasn't sure how I would do. So when I got a medal, I was very satisfied," she says.

Mariya considers her silver at the Rio Games a disappointment. She was leading her bout with Japan's Eri Tosaka before losing by a single point after being taken down in the final few seconds. "I had trained well and I was at my peak as a wrestler. So I was not satisfied with what I had won," she says. Mariya's dissatsifaction was evident as she posed glumly with the silver and took it off immediately after the medal ceremony.

Igor and Mia, though, didn't share in their mother's unhappiness. "Whenever they see me on TV with a medal, they know that I will be coming home soon. So they look forward to it."

Back in Ukraine, it was the two kids' turn to be disappointed. "They put the medal in their mouth and tried to bite it. They had seen me do that a lot on TV and they thought it was something to eat," she says.

While her children haven't yet understood the significance of an Olympic medal, it hasn't stopped them from picking up a few pointers on the mat. On her Facebook page, Mariya has uploaded videos of her children, throwing (with some help from her own side) their famous mother over their shoulders.

And while Mariya says Igor is also taken with football, she considers it only a temporary fascination. "Wrestling is in his genetics. He is still quite young. He will become a wrestler eventually," she laughs.

The video was shot in the months after the Rio Olympics, when Mariya was taking a few weeks off to spend time with her family. She made her competitive return to the mat at the PWL. It is the start of another grueling four-year Olympic cycle. But even if she does fulfill her gold medal ambition at Tokyo, she says it won't be the achievement she is most proud of.

"This is my biggest achievement," Mariya says, pointing at her phone screen and the image of her and her children. "It's my main medal. Family is more important than any medals."