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Daughter of a tractor driver from Haryana, Pooja Dhanda’s competitive spirit has seen her grow into one of the most promising Indian women wrestlers of her generation.

Along the way, she has even found a fan in Olympic gold medallist Helen Maroulis – someone she herself idolizes.

Born in the Budana village in the Hisar district, a young Pooja Dhanda began going on long runs in the countryside with her father, a marathon running enthusiast.

That helped instill the passion for sports in her and it wasn’t long before she chose wrestling as her first love.

However, the urge to compete at national and international events from a young age prompted Pooja Dhanda to take up judo in parallel.

A natural athlete, Pooja Dhanda excelled as a judoka, winning several national and three international medals.

Even as she had been picked for the Asian Judo Championships, an insightful meeting with wrestler Kripa Shankar Bishnoi convinced her to change tracks and take up wrestling in 2009 full-time.

Bishnoi believed Pooja Dhanda’s body structure and talents suited wrestling more than judo and the former Commonwealth Games bronze medallist was spot-on with his assessment.

Aided by her earlier training and background in judo, another combat sport focused on upper body strength, Pooja Dhanda realised her potential in wrestling with immediate success.

A year later, she was a silver medallist in the 60kg category at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore.

After honing her craft in the junior circuit for a few years, Pooja Dhanda entered the senior circuit with purpose, becoming the national champion, bagging gold at the Commonwealth Championships in 2013 and winning a bronze medal at the 2014 Asian Championships.

It was during this period that Dhanda also made the shortlist to play the role of Babita Phogat – whom she beat to secure her first national championship - in the Bollywood blockbuster Dangal. But a severe tear to her Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) forced her to pull out.

The career-threatening injury also brought about a challenging phase in the young wrestler’s career and kept her on the sidelines for large parts of the next two years, eventually resulting in her missing out on the Rio Games in 2016.

Pooja Dhanda decided to go under the knife but unfortunately, her first surgery was unsuccessful. She couldn’t straighten her leg even after rehabilitation and her decision to return to the mat despite the discomfort only further aggravated her condition and was addressed only after another surgery late in 2016.

Pooja Dhanda had a bumpy start when she returned to the mat with a quick exit from the 2017 World Championships, but she was on a mission to script a comeback story.

“It was alright being an actor (in the Dangal casting trials). But I prefer writing my own story,” she said.

She marked her return to success becoming the national champion again in 2017 but it was at the Pro Wrestling League a year later that she truly made a lasting mark.

Representing the Punjab Royals, Pooja Dhanda defeated reigning World and Olympic champion Helen Maroulis of the USA twice within a span of two weeks to lead her team to the title.

“After the final match, Helen told me 'I am your fan now'. I was over the moon. I have always admired Helen for her wrestling and beating her twice was a dream come true,” Pooja Dhanda recalled.

In the same tournament, Dhanda registered another memorable victory over Rio 2016 bronze medallist and 2017 World Championships silver medallist Marwa Amri. She then went on to clinch the silver medal in the 57kg category at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

Her next challenge was the 2018 World Wrestling Championships and her 57kg category featured some of the best grapplers from around the world in China’s Rong Ningning, Bulgaria’s Bilyana Dudova, Hungary’s Emese Barka and others.

The Haryana wrestler rose to the occasion and clinched bronze, to become only the fourth Indian woman wrestler to win a World Championship medal after Alka Tomar (2006), Geeta Phogat (2012) and Babita Phogat (2012).

In 2019, Pooja Dhanda was honoured with the Arjuna Award for her accomplishments on the wrestling mat.

Aspiring to make her maiden Games appearance at Tokyo Olympics, Pooja Dhanda has already made a medal for India her ‘ultimate aim’.