A woman taking up a male-dominated sport comes with its own set of challenges. Delhi-based Rishitaa Jain is only 17, but is already privy to this. The Class XII student of Prudence School is a professional powerlifter, and the winner of four gold medals, which she received at the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships, held in Canada in 2019. She was the youngest representative in the Indian team.
Rishitaa’s journey began when she started accompanying her father to the gym at the age of 15 to maintain a fit lifestyle. While her trainer assigned simple exercises that consisted of cardio and strength training, she found herself fascinated by how her father and other gym members would lift heavyweights. She expressed her interest to her parents, and Rishitaa began training under a professional.
Today Rishitaa is carving her own niche in the male-dominated world of sports, but getting here was not easy.
‘Strength and discipline’
Rishitaa was involved in various sports, both indoors and outdoors, from a very young age. She practised gymnastics for a few years and was part of her school’s football team. When she was 15 years old, she joined Fitness Castle, a gym in Karol Bagh, where her father exercised regularly.
“Since I was part of the football team, I would do some extra training at the gym to improve my game. On the second day of training, I saw my father strapping on safety gear, gloves, and walking towards a bar that had more than 60 kilos of weights attached to it,” says Rishitaa, adding that she was fascinated by how he could carry such heavy weights.
For the next few days, she continued watching other gym members lift weights and finally approached her trainer — Javed Mehta, an international powerlifter and the owner of the gym. “I explained to him that I was interested in the sport and wanted to try it out. He knew that I had the potential to excel, and agreed to train me,” says Rishitaa.
Her parents — Rishi and Swetha — were also supportive of her decision. Swetha, who had trained and competed in Judo during her school days, believes that every child must train in some sport because it gives them strength and discipline.
Training and competing as a powerlifter
In April 2017, Rishitaa began her training to become a powerlifter.
“Though I was involved in physical activities, my body was not fit enough to lift heavyweights. So, my coach began by improving my strength, which includes exercising regularly for two hours, and keeping a strict watch on my diet. But for the first few months, I would have many cheat days because I’d be tempted to eat junk food or skip training for a day,” says Rishitaa.
However, she persevered. In December 2017, her coach told her that she was ready to power lift, and Rishitaa was excited. She strapped on her safety gear, wore her gloves, and stood behind a 60-kilogram rod.
“I was asked to do a deadlift, which means lifting the weights off the ground and holding them above the knees for a specific amount of time. I was able to pick up the 60 kilos and hold it up to 10 seconds,” says Rishitaa, adding that since that day, she has been lifting weights every day.
In May 2018, Rishitaa participated in her first state-level powerlifting match at Kanpur. She won a bronze medal and soon went on to participate in several other state-level and national-level competitions, where she won a gold, silver or bronze.
Her daily schedule began with going to school in the morning, and to the gym in the evening. But, sometimes when she had a competition nearing, she would have to attend training in the morning and skip school.
“My parents talked to my principal about my training, and he was delighted to provide necessary support to help me balance studies and sports. If I have a tournament during an examination, the school allows me to take it at a later date. This gives me ample time to catch up on portions and prepare for the test,” says Rishitaa.
Dr C B Mishra, the director and principal of Prudence School, Delhi says that they were happy to offer their full support, because Rishitaa is a hardworking student.
He says, “Rishitaa gives her 100% to both academics and sports. When she went to Canada, her class teachers kept track of the study material being taught during her absence and helped her catch up once she returned. Some teachers cleared doubts for Rishitaa even over phone calls.”
‘No one will marry you’
When Rishitaa began her training, many of her relatives expressed their concerns to her parents. “They were worried that if I lift heavy weights, I would bulk up or look manly, and no one would marry me. Even in school, some of my classmates would tease me saying that heavy lifting was a sport for men and girls cannot lift weights,” says Rishitaa.
Without taking any of these comments to heart, Rishitaa’s parents continued to support her, and Rishitaa never let the criticism bring her down. Instead, she trained harder and broke any misconceptions that those around her had about women powerlifting.
In 2019, at the age of 16, Rishitaa was selected as one of the youngest members to represent India at the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championship.
“I travelled to Canada for the tournament with my father and other team members from India. I was extremely nervous before my first round of matches. But my mentors and other senior team members such as Vishwanath Baskar and Arthi Arun gave me pep talks and reassured me that I can do it,” says Rishitaa, adding that it was this motivation that helped her win four gold medals, each in different categories.
Today, Rishitaa is in her Class XII, but continues to train and participate in competitions held in India.
She says, “My journey was strenuous and challenging, but I am thankful for having my parents’ and mentors’ consistent support. I know that many women across the world aren’t allowed to play a sport because of gender stereotypes. I urge these people to pursue their dreams no matter what others say. Because no one can stop you, and definitely not those who think women are the weaker sex.”