Ritu Phogat, the last sister of ‘Dangal’ to enter the ring
With the threat of the pandemic still looming, the past few months have been difficult for many of us. But many Indian sportsmen are working hard to make India proud, showing their resilience and giving us a glimmer of hope.
One of these sportsmen is Ritu Phogat, who is currently in Singapore to participate in a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) tournament, under ONE Championship, India. In fact, Ritu is set to face two-time Chinese MMA champion Meng Bo in the 2021 ONE Women’s Atomweight Grand Prix quarter-final match at ONE Championship: Empower on May 28.
She also won gold at the 2016 Commonwealth Wrestling Championship. Introduced to professional sport at age seven, wrestling was not new to Ritu or her family.
The name “Phogat” hardly needs to be introduced. Besides the fact that Aamir Khan’s film – Dangal have made familiar names of the sisters of Ritu Geeta and Babita, the Phogat sisters are well known by themselves.
The Phogat fraternity
Geeta phogat, a freestyle wrestler, won India’s first ever Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2010. She is also the first Indian female wrestler to qualify for the Summer Olympics.
Ritu’s other sister, Babita Phogat, won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and bronze at the 2012 World Wrestling Championships. His cousin sister Vinesh Phogat is also a gold medalist. To not forget Mahavir Singh Phogat, their father, who is himself a wrestler and trained all the girls.
“We come from a very small village in Haryana called Balali. As a girl, there weren’t a lot of career options to choose from. I grew up watching and experiencing wrestling, so I started the sport at the age of seven. Since then, there has been no turning back. Fast forward to 2019, I had the opportunity to try my hand at MMA after winning several medals for my country and my state, ”says Ritu. HerStory.
The struggle came naturally to Ritu. She says she didn’t think twice before entering professional sports. Like her sisters, Ritu also trained in the traditional ‘danglals’ (mud wrestling) in and around its Haryana villages. Remembering her training, she said,
“I wrestled with boys in dangals (mud fight) and won several times. Our dangals are very popular, especially in our part of the country. So winning one was a huge source of pride for us. We used to participate in the smaller dangal. Sometimes we fought for three oranges. Yes, if we won, we would receive three oranges! And it was the ultimate happiness for us as children.
It was wrestling that led her to love MMA. During wrestling, she often thought of other forms of martial arts – wrestling, boxing, kickboxing, and Wushu – comparing herself to each other and researching athletes.
“When the MMA opportunity came knocking on my door, I thought why not? And that was something I really wanted to try. I am more adventurous in my family, ”says Ritu ironically.
Discipline to the end
While some of these may be artistic freedoms, the film Dangal understood their father’s methods well. It was his laser-focused discipline that helped Ritu move forward. She says,
“My father took me under his wings when I was only seven years old. As you all know, he is very strict and disciplined. My training was therefore very difficult from day one. We used to wake up at 4 a.m., work out until 7 a.m., have a full breakfast, and then rest. The afternoons were spent in another intense workout, followed by dinner and bedtime at 9 p.m. It was my daily regimen while I was training with my dad.
This discipline and these values have helped me navigate the ebb and flow of life. Not only that, in fact, the deeply rooted values and sanctity of the sport that my father taught us helps me to stay focused, ”says Ritu.
Stereotypes don’t matter
But, although he comes from an illustrious sporting family, Ritu is not immune to prejudice. She explains that being from a small village, there are hardly any opportunities for women to thrive, so it was difficult for all of them.
“However, it was my sisters who broke the stereotype and won international wrestling medals. So for me it wasn’t that hard. In India, women had a different role to play in society – we were seen more as housewives and nurturers, or at least that was popular belief. But now things are different and the mindset has changed dramatically. Today, women thrive in all aspects of life and our expectations have also changed dramatically, ”adds Ritu.
She adds that her sisters protected her and faced all challenges before she even started.
“But yes, in a lot of international tournaments people didn’t take me too seriously because of my Indian roots, but I made sure their conceptions of the country and the women there had changed before I left the stadium.” , says Ritu.
To move on
She adds that everyone, including athletes, goes through their respective ups and downs. “I have also faced these issues in my career and my personal life,” says Ritu. But since her childhood she has been ready to move on and face any challenge head-on.
“A loss shouldn’t stop you from trying next time. It is natural to have negative thoughts and to want to quit. But don’t give up, prepare for the worst and stay the course – these are invaluable lessons I learned from my father, ”says Ritu.
Today, Ritu aims to become the world’s leading MMA player in India and take the country to unexplored heights in the MMA space. She believes Indians can turn an opportunity into a celebration of skill, courage, determination and victory, and Ritu wants the rest of the world to know that.
She says, “Each of us can overcome challenges if we focus on our goals and don’t worry about what others think. If you are on the right track, they will all eventually join you and accompany you on your journey. Be patient and focused and you will see the magic. Believe in yourself first so that the world will believe in you! “