Nandini Salokhe breaks Haryana stranglehold to shine against the odds

Nandini Salokhe poses with her gold medal at the Women's Wrestling Nationals in Agra. Jonathan Selvaraj

A caveat at the start. Yes, Vinesh Phogat wasn't competing here and in the absence of the world bronze medalist, the 53kg division at the Women's nationals in Agra could be considered a contest of the best of the rest. Having said that, Nandini Salokhe's gold medal in the division was still significant.

In what has become a bit of a familiarity at this point, the nationals were dominated by a single north Indian state -- even if they now represent their employers. Nine out of ten gold medals awarded over the past couple of days were awarded to competitors from the Haryana. The state has supportive parents, a deep athlete base, a tradition of success in the sport and most importantly, compared to the rest of the country at least, a sustained supportive atmosphere where girls are encouraged to compete in the sport.

The sole outlier in preventing a clean sweep was the 23-year-old Salokhe from Murgude in Maharashtra. In all the history of the nationals, Salokhe is only the second woman from Maharashtra to be crowned champion.

Salokhe had few advantages when she started out. While Maharashtra has a storied tradition of men's wrestling, there's next to nothing in the women's events. Nandini says she didn't even know about the sport until one day in 2010 when, entirely serendipitously, coach Dada Lavate announced open trials for the wrestling program at the then newly opened SAI wrestling academy in Kolhapur.

The only sport the 13-year-old had played at that point was kabaddi but she showed up for the trials anyway. Lavate, a former India international himself, says he saw potential in her. It's also possible that Lavate was trying to make up the numbers -- women's wrestling he admits, wasn't very popular.

Nandini could have easily slipped through the cracks. Her father had passed away when she was three. "My father died when I was 3 years old. My mother Savitri has raised us on her own. She would work as a maid in other people's homes in order to support us. She always supported me even when people asked her why she was letting a young girl wrestle," says Nandini.

Even today, when she has a few sponsors, Nandini's mother continues to work. This year in particular, money dried up after her sponsors suffered business losses of their own during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown in India. "Even though I get some sponsorship, it's not always enough. My mother still works at other houses today. I am grateful to my mother that she did what she could to support me. I'd never be here without her sacrifice," Nandini says.

While her mother's support has been resolute throughout her career, Nandini has also had native talent. That, Lavate says, has been crucial in keeping her committed to the sport.

She won a state title within a year of starting the sport and in 2016, when she had just turned 18, she won a surprise silver medal at the National Games, eventually losing to Vinesh's cousin (and now MMA star) Ritu Phogat.

Her steady rise would be broken when she suffered a serious injury, tearing the ligaments on her left knee entirely at the 2018 junior nationals. "She had surgery and was out for an entire year. Even after she returned and was fully fit, she had lost a lot of the fearlessness that had made her a serious competitor. When she returned at the U-23 Nationals last year she lost out on a medal because she was hesitant while competing against Ankush of Haryana. That was the same wrestler against whom she first sustained her injury," recalls Lavate.

He says was nervous on Saturday too. "I had to push her. I made it clear she had to leave everything on the mat."

She would do just that-- pinning each of her opponents including Ankush of Haryana in the semifinals. She would beat Mamta of Delhi by another pin in the final.

While Nandini is clearly the best of the bunch here, she cannot be considered the best in India as long as Vinesh Phogat, who has already qualified for the Olympics, is active.

The two have competed before at a selection trial last year. Nandini took an early lead with a surprise takedown but was eventually overwhelmed 12-2. At this stage at least Vinesh is too fast, too technical and too strong for Nandini. "Bahut badi hai merse (She's much bigger than me)", Nandini says simply.

At some point, Nandini will be able to make Vinesh work harder and push her own claim on the top of the hill in her weight class.

But closer home, she's already making an impact. Just by her example she's managing to inspire other girls to get into the sport. "When we started, we only had two wrestlers. Now girls like Nandini are starting to inspire others. Because of her, we have another 50 girls who are training as wrestlers," says Lavate.