Staying strong in a storm

Boxing : After being slapped with a one-year ban, Sarita Devi is training hard with Rio Olympics on her mind

Staying strong in a storm

A World Championship gold medal and four Asian Championship titles didn’t bring her as much attention as a display of pain and rage against perceived injustice in the ring did. For all her achievements, Laishram Sarita Devi will forever be remembered first for that petulant show at the Asian Games last year, when she refused to accept her bronze medal.

Nine months later, Sarita though has put those tough days behind. She is on a different mission now, having set fresh goals as she prepares to come out of a one-year ban imposed by the world body for her unsporting behaviour at Incheon.

“It was very tough in the beginning. I had suffered a wrist injury and I felt very disappointed after returning home. But thanks to my husband Thoiba Singh’s support and the encouragement from family and friends, I was able to regain my confidence,” says Sarita, who is in Bengaluru on a training programme charted out by the Olympic Gold Quest.

“I consider it as part and parcel of a sportsperson’s journey. I felt it is very important to forget the negative things and concentrate on my game,” she says, looking back to her controversial semifinal defeat to Park Ji-Na of South Korea at the Asiad.

That defeat might have dashed a dream but it certainly lit a fire of ambition, with the 30-year-old Manipuri working with renewed vigour for a strong comeback. The Olympic Games next year is her goal and as she speaks on, a heart-warming picture emerges – of a passionate boxer in pursuit of continuous success.

“I did not set out to be a boxer. I was interested in taekwondo and kung-fu much before I was exposed to boxing. My coach in our town Mayang Imphal took a few of us to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Training Centre during a boxing camp and the experience was very intimidating,” she says.

“I saw boxers sweat it out inside the ring and the aggression was so fearful that I decided not to take up boxing as my career. But after a week, I went back to the camp and observed the game for long hours. I slowly felt nice about it and that’s how it all started.”

The early days were anything but easy but Sarita had strong family support. “I was the sixth of the eight children in my family. My father, who worked in the Indian Oil Company, was a disciplined man. He pushed me hard to maintain my fitness and his demise early in my life had a big impact on me. I became more serious about my goals and worked hard towards it,” she says.

The tough days made her stronger. “The atmosphere in my State was not always peaceful,” she agrees. “During the time of strikes, I would walk long distances to reach the training camp.”

A silver medal in the 54 kg category in the inaugural Asian Women’s Boxing Championship in Bangkok in 2001 came as a timely boost. But after that bright start, the going was tough for Sarita with the financial crisis proving to be a big hurdle, almost nipping her career early.

“I won my first major gold (54 kg) in the second Asian Championship in India in 2003 but the most memorable moment in my career came in 2005. With financial issues hitting the family, it was my last chance to continue boxing. I had decided to quit the game and look for an employment if I failed to win a medal in the World Championship in Russia. I managed to win a bronze and it was a huge turning point. I had won the gold in the Asian Championships also that year and apart from the cash rewards, the Manipur government offered me a job in the State police department, enabling me to help my family with my earnings,” she says. 

The financial stability allowed her to focus more in the ring. Sarita struck gold in the 2006 World Championship in New Delhi and then won the yellow metal again in the Asian Championship in 2008 in Guwahati, both in the 52kg category. Another gold at the Asian meet in 2010 at Astana confirmed her status as the best in the continent.

“It is challenging to keep your focus strong and remaining fit for various tournaments requires lot of hard work. I find it motivating when I try to emulate top boxers such as Dingko Singh (the Asian Games champion in 1998, who also hailed from Manipur). I am also a fan of Muhammad Ali,” says Sarita, who was honoured with the Arjuna Award in 2009.

Having seen the game on the World stage, Sarita believes there are lot of things for boxers from India to learn from their foreign counterparts. “We have this tendency to get done in by our nerves. Maybe it is also because of how we are brought up in our families in a very conservative manner, reminded constantly about our responsibilities. The boxers from the developed countries are very fearless. They seem to forget everything inside the ring and can soak up the pressure.”

But with many talented and young boxers rising up the ranks, Sarita is happy to see the game developing in the country. “It is wonderful to see the facilities enjoyed by a boxer these days. Women boxers have personal trainers and we are more educated about the game than before,” she says, as she focuses on an extended career.

“There are no thoughts about quitting yet,” she says. “My ban ends in October and I have set the Olympics as my next target. I also want to set up a boxing academy in my state. Manipur is not an industrial state. Children either turn to studies or they excel in sports. I wish to nurture young talent and bring more laurels to the country through them.”

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