Who is Seema Bisla? The underdog who made the cut for Tokyo Olympics

At 29, Bisla is one of the older members of the Indian wrestling contingent to Tokyo 2020 but she getting better with age
By Deepti Patwardhan

For years, Seema Bisla has lived in the shadow of the more famous Indian female wrestlers like Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik.

But the woman from Haryana finally had her moment of glory at the World Olympic Games Qualifiers in Sofia, Bulgaria as she entered the final of the 50kg weight category. The 29-year-old defeated Anna Lukasiak of Poland to secure a berth for the Tokyo Olympics. The event, where the finalists in each weight category qualify for the Games, was the last chance for Indian wrestlers to book their ticket to the Olympics.

Bisla is the fourth Indian female wrestler and eighth Indian wrestler to make the cut for Tokyo 2020.

Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Anshu Malik (57kg) and Sonam Malik (62kg), Ravi Kumar Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg) Deepak Punia (86kg) and Sumit Malik (125kg) make up the rest of the Indian contingent.

Bisla’s is another story of perseverance from athletes of India’s hinterland. Here’s a look back at her journey:

Family of wrestlers

Bisla was born in Gudhan village in Haryana's Rohtak district and is the youngest of four sisters.

Her father and uncle were wrestlers and competed at a decent level. They were the reason she gravitated towards the sport. Bisla’s talent was evident early on as she won gold medal at the cadet nationals and won a bronze (cadet, 49 kg) in her very first international competition—the 2008 Asian Championship.

Girl interrupted

Even as Bisla struggled to find the right weight category – she had stepped down to 46 kg for the 2009 Asian Championships and competed in the Juniors 67 kg category at the 2012 Asian Championships—she was also setback by injuries.

"I suffered a bad injury to my neck as a junior,” she told ESPN in an interview in 2019. “I was able to compete but the doctors told me to avoid cutting weight because that would increase the chance of picking up more injuries.”

Finding her happy weight

With Vinesh Phogat competing in 50kg and Sakshi Malik doing well in 58kg in India, Bisla was left to find a niche for herself. Though her non-competition weight hovered around 58, she competed in 67kg as a junior. In seniors, she has competed in 55kg, 53kg and 50kg.

“For four years I didn't get the chance to play a single tournament as a senior,” she told ESPN.

“I also hadn't won a single national title as a senior. Many times I was sad, I felt 'when will my chance come?' Of course you feel bad and left out when others are doing well."

Change of fortunes

Bisla’s career turned around over a rule change by the governing body, United World Wrestling. Before 2018, the wrestlers would be weighed in a day before the competition. But the new rule stated that the weigh-in would happen on the morning of the competition, not giving the athletes enough time to recover from the weight cut.

Due to this, Vinesh Phogat stepped up to the 53kg while Seema was free to compete in her pet 50kg category.

The very next year, Bisla picked up gold medals at the Matteo Pellicone tournament in May and the Yasar Dogu event in August.

Training with boys

Paramjit Singh, her coach at the Indian Railways, had his ward train with male wrestlers to get her in shape for the Tokyo Olympics.

“Preparing against the boys has put her in good stead,” Paramjit was quoted as saying by the New Indian Express in September 2019.

“After training with boys, when she wrestles in international competitions against stronger girls, she will not feel their strength and power much. This regime has helped her become more confident.”

Olympic dream

Despite all the hurdles in her way, Bisla has persisted with her Olympic dream.

She missed out on making the cut for Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, finishing fourth in the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Almaty and settling for a bronze at the Asian Championships in April.

But Bisla, currently ranked No 7 in the world in her weight category, grabbed her last opportunity to secure the Olympic berth on Friday.

“It’s commendable as she never gave up despite being an underdog for years. This perseverance paid off,” former India women’s coach Kripa Shankar Patel told the New Indian Express after her qualification.

She will now accompany the 26-year-old Vinesh Phogat and teenager Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik to the Games. It’s been a long time coming.