At 50kg, Seema Bisla finally worth her weight in gold

Seema Bisla ESPN

International coach Woller Akos, who is currently working with Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat, did a double take when he first saw Phogat's compatriot Seema Bisla at the Indian national camp in Lucknow.

Akos, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the sport, knew that Seema had competed at the 2011 Junior World Championships. But he could not square the fact that the girl who had competed in the 67kg category then - the third heaviest in women's wrestling - was now competing in the 50kg division, the lightest in the sport.

Akos' confusion was understandable, since weight jumps - especially in the reverse direction - are rare in the sport, forget one of the magnitude of Seema's move.

"He made me take out the old ID card from that tournament so that he could see that it was actually me. My face was a lot bigger but of course it was the same person," Seema says. It's not just her physical appearance that has undergone a change over the years. Seema's performance on the mat, too, has seen a transformation. Where she once was a mid-level wrestler, used to being in the shadow of her team-mates , she is now making a move towards the spotlight herself. Gold medal at the Sassari International was followed by a silver medal at the Grand Prix of Spain.

What followed was perhaps the best result of her career - victories over the European junior champion Veronika Gurskaya and former World bronze medalist Evin Demirhan - earning her the prestigious Yasar Dogu tournament. It is a run that has seen her shoot up the UWW rankings, to No.3 in the world. Now, having won last Sunday's selection trials to represent India at the World Championships, Seema will be heading to Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan hoping to seal a place in the Olympics, too.

It's an improvement that Seema finds scarcely believable. "The last few months have been good, but there's been a lot of ups and downs," she admits.

Wrestling is in the 26-year-old's blood, with her father and uncle both having played the sport. The youngest of four sisters from the Gudhan village in Haryana's Rohtak district, she was encouraged to pick up the sport in Rohtak city and showed plenty of talent early on, winning gold medals at the cadet nationals, and then claiming bronze medals at the Asian Championships.

Yet, as the years progressed, Seema's rise was slowed by injuries and improving rivals. These were the reasons behind Seema moving up multiple weight divisions; she had competed in the 46kg class at her first Asian Championships as a cadet but in the 67kg class three years later at the Junior Continental Championships in 2012.

"I suffered a bad injury to my neck as a junior. I was able to compete but the doctors told me to avoid cutting weight because that would increase the chance of picking up more injuries," she says.

This doesn't mean that Seema was weighing in at 67kg.

"Even at the best of times I was around 58kg. My option was competing in the 67kg category or not competing at all," she says. It speaks of her talent that despite giving up nearly ten kilos - close to a fifth of her bodyweight in muscle and bone - Seema was still able to pick up the odd result including a bronze at the 2012 Asian Championships.

""For four years I didn't get the chance to play a single tournament as a senior. I also hadn't won a single national title as a senior. Many times i was sad, I felt 'when will my chance come?' Of course you feel bad and left out when other's are doing well." Seema Bisla

That was the exception, though. Wrestling's lightest weight class - 48kg (subsequently 50kg) - was soon claimed by Phogat, while the roster spot in the 62kg class was that of Olympic bronze medalist Sakshi Malik. Competition in the weights in between was fierce and Seema was not able to make the most of the few chances she got. Her career was at a crossroads.

"For four years I didn't get the chance to play a single tournament as a senior. I also hadn't won a single national title as a senior. Many times i was sad, I felt 'when will my chance come?' Of course you feel bad and left out when other's are doing well."

There were challenges off the mat too. Money was tight in the family with the only source of income being her father's as a small farmer. So when Seema was offered a job in the Indian Railways, and with it the comfort of an assured salary, she had enough incentive to quit the sport. Railways coach Paramjit Singh understood her reasoning, though. "She had talent but there were no results to speak of. Why should she keep punishing her body for no purpose?" Paramjit remembers wondering.

But he also advised her to hold off the decision.

"She had a lot of natural ability and feeling on the mat. I knew that she had a lot of weaknesses especially in her ability to defend but these were things that could be worked on."

Eventually though, advised by Paramjit, Seema persisted and things would begin turning around. She started training under him and went on to win her first senior title in the 53kg division in 2017. She would repeat that gold the following year too. But her real breakthrough would come the year after due to rule changes made by the international body.

Until 2018, wrestlers would have to weigh in the day before their bouts. This meant that athletes would be able to shed significant amounts of weight before rehydrating in time for their bouts. The new rule meant that wrestlers would have to weigh in on the morning of their contest, limiting the amount of time they had to recover from a weight cut. The rule change directly impacted Phogat who was now no longer able to make the 50kg division and instead moved up to the 53kg class.

It was far easier to make that same weight though for Seema, who had a non-competition weight of around 54kgs.

"That was a huge help for her. For the first time in her senior career, she was able to compete in the weight category that actually suited her," Paramjit says.

While she had a poor start to her new division, losing early at the 2019 Asian Championships, it was clear that she was finally comfortable in her weight class and Seema was able to focus solely on her wrestling. Parmajit once reckoned it would take until the 2024 Olympics for Seema to grind out all her flaws, but her improvement has been far more rapid.

"It's taken me by surprise. She's already got far more stamina than any other wrestler in her class and she's improving both on her defence and her ability to counter off defence," he says.

For Seema, the true test of her form will be at the World Championships in September. But it's with a new-look confidence that she speaks now.

"It's not just enough to go to the World Championships. I want to win an Olympic quota with a medal this time."