For someone who won her first senior national title all the way back in 2005, it is understandable that Anita Sheoran isn't very confident of guessing just how many she has won over the course of her career. "I guess I stopped counting after the fifth or sixth time," she joked not long after winning yet another gold -- in the women's 68kg category at the 2019 senior nationals.
The 35-year-old Sheoran is far surer about guessing which of her national titles she rates most highly. It would have to be the 65kg crown at the 2018 senior nationals, she says, followed by the win in Jalandhar this year -- a 5-1 win over Asian silver medallist Divya Kakran, who at 20 is nearly half her age.
"The win last year was very important for me because I had taken a two-year break from the sport after I had had my baby. That was my return to competition. But that was in a non-Olympic weight class where the competition was lighter. This time I was competing in an Olympic weight division. Divya is probably the best in that category right now. So it has given me the confidence that I can compete and win at this level," she says.
The Olympic dream is what is keeping Sheoran going today. She had come close to qualifying twice before in 2012 and 2016, narrowly missing out on both occasions. "My dream has always been to go to the Olympics. I'd won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and I was in really good form going into the Olympic qualifier. But I conceded a point in the very last seconds of the match and missed the quota. That was really disappointing for me and shook a lot of my confidence," she recalls.
Sheoran would get married in 2015 but continue to pursue her Olympic ambition. She came agonisingly close once again in 2016. "At the first Olympic qualifier, I got my visa really late and because of that I was not in the right frame of mind. And in that tournament I lost to a wrestler from Kazakhstan. She would win a medal at the Olympics and I would always wonder if that could have been me," she says.
That part of her life seemed to have been over for good when she became pregnant in 2017. After delivering her son, Aryaveer, she was nearly unrecognisable as the muscular specimen who had won a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. "I was over 90 kilos, and honestly I felt horrible when I saw myself in the mirror. I thought I had shut that chapter of my life," she says. "I still had my wrestling kit and equipment but I didn't even want to look at them because they reminded me of how far I had slipped. No one has any trust in you at that time. Society thinks you aren't good for anything and even I didn't believe in myself," she recalls.
It was her husband who motivated her. "He got me to start training once again. He said that even if I never got back to competition, at least I would feel better that I was physically fit once again," she says.
And when she started to train, her family backed her to the hilt. While she shed the kilos and returned to the mat, Aryaveer was left to the care of his grandmother. "No one told me to stop. Everyone supported me," she says.
The pace of her improvement soon exceeded her initial expectations that she was only training for fitness. Within a year of her delivery, she won that gold at the 2018 nationals.
When Sheoran tried to shift back to the Olympic weight category at the selection trials for the 2019 World Championships, though, she would lose early in the competition.
But that setback did little to slow her down. Even when she had self-doubts, she would be motivated by others, including her far younger compatriots at the national camp. "I still speak to Sakshi [Malik], Vinesh [Phogat] and Pooja Dhanda. They are younger than me, but I don't think of them as juniors. I had a really late start in wrestling so I think they would have started learning around the same time as me. They always motivate. I often have doubts, where I wonder if I will be able to win again. And they keep saying I will win. They keep telling me -- lage raho (keep at it). Never to give up and that I have nothing to lose," she says.
Having won National gold for the second year running, Sheoran says she would like to bust a few myths based on her own lived experience. "I've realised that there's no reason to be worried about how old you are. I was concerned that I would become weaker after delivering my baby. But I'm as strong as I used to be back in 2012. In fact, I can lift even more weight than I used to. My stamina has not been affected at all. I can outrun any of the young girls in the national camp. It's all in your head," she says.
Of course, with her sights firmly set on chasing her Olympic ambitions once again, Sheoran has had to make some sacrifices. The biggest has been in staying away from her son Aryaveer while she trains. "I can't bring him to competitions because if he's around I can't leave him. I always want to be around him and can't focus on my matches. It is the same thing when I am part of the national camp," she says.
Now, by virtue of winning the national title, Sheoran has earned the right to compete at the South Asian Games in Kathmandu next week. And while she only has a few days until then, she plans to spend the time at home. "I'm just going to spend time with my baby for the next week," she says.