How Karnam Malleswari inspired Geeta Phogat to script wrestling history

When weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won bronze in Sydney Olympics, it gave the legendary Mahavir Singh Phogat reasons to push his daughters to do something extraordinary.

By Naveen Peter and Ubaid Parkar

For Geeta Phogat, a champion wrestler who inspired a generation, it was Karnam Malleswari’s medal moment at the Sydney 2000 Olympics that stoked the fire to dream big.

Growing up in Bhiwani, the former Commonwealth Games wrestling champion was only 12 when Malleswari went on to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.

Though Geeta didn’t realise the magnitude of the achievement then, it gave her father Mahavir Singh Phogat enough reasons to believe that his daughters could emulate the weightlifting champion.

“I don’t remember much of the episode. But for my dad, that was one of the turning points,” Geeta Phogat told the Olympic Channel.

“For him, this was a girl from Haryana (Karnam Malleswari moved to Haryana to pursue a career in weightlifting) who had done well in sports. And today she made the nation proud with her achievements in weightlifting.

“From then on, all he wanted to do was to make his daughters worthy enough to win laurels for the country. That in a way sparked the fire in him. Then nothing else mattered to dad,” said Geeta, the eldest of the Phogat sisters.

While Malleswari’s tales were a regular affair in Mahavir Singh Phogat’s training, Geeta realised the extent of the weightlifter’s achievements only once she made the international grade.

“I think it’s not just me but she (Karnam Malleswari) went on to inspire a generation of athletes, women in particular, that followed her,” she said.

“Winning a medal at the Olympics is no mean task and for a woman from India to do it, she opened the doors for future superstars. I think our lives became a bit easier because of her,” said Geeta, who is eyeing a berth at the Tokyo Games after becoming a new mom.

Though an Olympic medal still remains a distant dream for the wrestling ace, Geeta Phogat established her legacy by becoming the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Geeta Phogat is the first Indian woman to win a gold medal in wrestling at the Commonwealth Games.

Geeta’s heroics at the 2010 Commonwealth Games have made her a role model for the aspiring wrestlers in the country today. The way Phogat sisters and Mahavir battled against social odds has even inspired Bollywood film-makers.

The movie, Dangal, where the famous Aamir Khan plays Mahavir Phogat, was a box-office hit for it captured the fabulous journey of a father and his two daughters wanting to break free from social taboos.

“It feels good when you realise that today youngsters look up to me,” she said. “Especially when parents come up to me and say that their daughters watch my videos and dream of becoming like Geeta and Babita.

“It’s a proud moment that today we have a lot of women taking up combat sports like wrestling, something that couldn’t have been thought about until a few years ago,” Geeta admitted.