Pooja Dhanda can laugh about it now. After all, it's been a few hours since the referee raised her arm at the conclusion of her bronze medal match at the Wrestling World Championships and her prize - only the fourth won by an Indian woman ever -- is safely tucked inside her travel bag. But the 24-year-old will admit to being more than a bit worried only a couple of days ago. That's when Dhanda first got a glimpse of her draw in the women's 57kg category at the Wrestling World Championships in Budapest.
"When I first saw the draw I was first thinking oh my god, what is this. Bilkul chauk gayi (I was stunned.) I had never seen a draw like this ever!" she recalls thinking.
There are tough draws and then there was the minefield Dhanda faced on the mat of the Laszlo Papp Sports Arena. In her quarter of the draw, all fighting for a semifinal spot, there was Russian champion Olga Khoroshavtseva, Olympic champion Helen Maroulis, Olympic bronze-medallist Katsugi Sakagami and World silver-medallist Odunayo Adekueroye and what would be the eventual World Champion Rong Ningning.
"At first I thought this is so difficult. All the Olympic and World Champions are in my pool only. But slowly I calmed myself down because I wasn't thinking that I had come here for a medal. I decided to fight every bout as if it was my last bout. And ultimately that helped me out," she recalls.
After beating the Russian and pulling off the biggest upset of her international career against Odunayo, Dhanda faltered against China's Ningning. The loss would have been particularly painful because it came against the same opponent who had stopped Dhanda's run at the World Championships in Paris last year. Back then, Dhanda had been leading 8-0 before collapsing to a 12-8 defeat. She was wrestling solidly at Budapest too, trailing by a solitary point at 4-3, when she was pinned.
It was a shock defeat again. "The Russian girl I had beaten had beaten the Chinese earlier this year. So I was quite confident I would beat her too. I was wrestling well also but I got caught because of a slip. If I had gone past her, I would certainly have been wrestling for a gold," she says.
Coach Kuldeep Malik was at first worried for he had seen this before. "Last year, after she had lost to the Chinese wrestler, she was very upset. But she didn't have any opportunity to do anything about it," recalls Malik. That was not the case this time around, though, as Ningning made the finals and with it lifted Dhanda into repechage. And so Malik reminded Dhanda of the opportunity that lay in front of her, "I reminded her, you were the better wrestler than her but you got a bit unlucky. So don't get too worried about this. The bronze was hers to take."
Malik was particularly confident considering the steady improvement Dhanda has made over the past couple of years. The former Youth Olympic silver-medallist may have lost a couple of years due to injury but she had cemented her spot in the Indian team with some impressive wins in the Pro Wrestling League (she beat Maroulis and Odunayo in the 2017 edition) and then a gold at the Commonwealth Games. While a semifinal loss at the Asian Games in August was a disappointment, Dhanda had thrown herself back to training to smooth out the kinks in her game.
"It had been disappointing to lose out, first in the semifinals, and then in bronze medal match at the Asian Games but I realized I had weaknesses in my game that I had to remove. I was getting caught through leg attacks, so after the Asian Games, JSW (her sponsors) sent me to Hungary, where I trained specifically on that," says Dhanda.
In her bronze medal match against Norway's Grace Bullen, Dhanda had to defend another style of attack. "The Norway girl is very strong physically. So Pooja couldn't attack her head on. She had to feint a lot and also attack from an angle. At the same time, she had to ensure she wasn't caught in any upper body locks. It wasn't an easy match but I had a lot of confidence in Pooja because she had been wrestling excellently throughout the tournament," says Malik.
The medal won after a 10-7 victory against Bullen, Dhanda is already looking to the future. The draw she came through might first have worried her but now serves as inspiration for the road ahead. "This bronze will really boost my confidence. I've won a medal from a very difficult pool. Now I think... if I could beat these wrestlers here, I can surely beat them at the Olympic qualifiers next year and then also at the 2020 Olympics," she says.