#StillOurHeroes is a series by The Better India to honour the hard work and struggles of those who gave everything to reach the Tokyo Olympics – while falling short of bagging a medal. While all of us have been celebrating India’s wins, the efforts of these athletes count just as much. We are here to show them that the country stands by them in their loss and that for their unparalleled diligence, they are already winners in our eyes.
On July 31, boxer Pooja Rani lost the match to China’s Li Qian during the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Though, her success would have carved her name among other medalists—such as Vijender Singh, who won bronze in Beijing 2008; MC Mary Kom, who bagged a bronze in London 2012; and Lovlina Borgohain at Tokyo, who secured bronze at Tokyo 2021—her tumultuous journey speaks volume of the fight she has put up so far.
Qualifying for the Olympics and making it to the quarterfinals in itself is still a massive feat for this young boxer, especially since in 2017 her boxing career was in jeopardy.
The gritty 30-year-old has fought all odds to demonstrate a feisty performance and make India proud at every stage.
A Boxer At 5’8’’
Born in the boxing cradle of Neemriwali village in Haryana, Pooja entered the boxing arena at the age of 18 all thanks to her coach Sanjay Kumar, and his wife, Mukesh Rani, who was a lecturer in her college.
However, even with much encouragement, Pooja felt shy to don the boxing gloves. She also knew that her father, Hawa Singh, a former sub-inspector, would not approve of her pursuing this ‘violent’ sport.
Nevertheless, Pooja pursued her passion in secret and, at times, would stay at her coach’s house to hide her injuries. Until one day, he learned of her extracurriculars and stopped her from playing the sport. “My father didn’t support me when I started out. He didn’t like boxing because he thought it was a violent sport. He didn’t mind me taking to other sports but boxing was a strict no-go zone,” she told Scroll.in.
It then took six month of relentless efforts from her coach Sanjay and Pooja to convince her father otherwise.
But the 2009 National youth title, after defeating Preeti Beniwal in the 60 kg category, pushed her career on an upward trajectory. In 2012, she bagged two silver medals at the Asian Games and Arafura Games organised in Australia.
Watch the 30 seconds that put Pooja Rani in the quarterfinals at Tokyo Olympics 2020.
— All India Radio News (@airnewsalerts) July 28, 2021
Her wins continued in 2014 when she bagged a bronze medal during the Asian Games under the 75kg category. Later, she acquired a gold medal during the South Asian Games of 2016, thus qualifying her for the Rio Olympics that year.
Unstoppable as she was, her wins came to a grinding halt when she lost the pre-qualifier match at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in 2016 and subsequently the opportunity at the Rio Olympic Games.
Additionally, in 2017, she injured her hand after a Diwali firecracker left a deep burn on it. Later, while sparring one day, she dislocated her shoulder, which lowered her morale and confidence even further.
Lakshya sports, she said, helped her get back in shape and reboot her career. “They helped me a lot. They arranged a physio for me and started working on my shoulder. It took me a whole year to get back on track. They backed me during that time,” she told Scroll.in.
And what a comeback! Pooja returned to the ring with a bang, winning back-to-back gold medals in the 81 kg category in Asian Boxing Championship held in 2019 and another in the 75kg category during the same championship held in 2021.
This made her the first woman boxer to earn the title. Given the long and winding road she took to get here, for us, Pooja is truly the ‘queen of Indian boxing’.
Edited by Yoshita Rao