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Life's changed for wrestler Marwa after historic Rio medal

JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

When Marwa Amri was last on Indian TV screens three months ago, she had just won bronze at the Olympics, and after flag-waving celebrations with her coach, was sharing the podium with Sakshi Malik. It was a special moment for India but it was an even bigger moment for Amri - she'd become not just the first Tunisian but the first African woman to win an Olympic medal in wrestling.

On Saturday, Amri, 27, was at a promotional event in Mumbai. Dressed trendily, her highlighted hair tumbling down, she fit right in at the upmarket Mumbai hotel where this correspondent met her. What stood out, though, was the large bronze disc that she kept close to her and gazed at from time to time.

"Life has changed a lot," Amri said.

The bronze medal isn't just a validation of all the hours and years of hard work she put into the game, it has also become a passport to a different world. In India as a guest of the Pro Wrestling League (PWL), Amri has been feted, done the Bollywood round - posing for pictures outside Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan's houses - and is now set to attend a big fat Indian wedding when fellow wrestler Geeta Phogat ties the knot on November 20.

"I'm very, very happy," she said. "I couldn't sleep for two days after I won the medal, it was a little unbelievable. I slept with the medal the day I won it. Now I get called for events and functions."

The upcoming PWL will be her first event after the Olympics, where she defeated Azerbaijan's Yuliya Ratkevich 6-3 in the 58-kg bronze medal bout to create African sporting history. "I was aware of the history I was about to create, and it was added pressure during the Olympics," she said. Her medal was won in the last ten seconds, when she lifted Raktevich off her feet and pinned her for a four-pointer. In one move she overcame the 2-3 deficit and launched her country in a new territory of athletic success.

"Before that I had won a few big medals, African championships, world championships, but this was the one I really wanted. In those last ten seconds, I knew when I went in for the move that I would get at least two points, I had to." When the final whistle blew, Amri sank to her knees and let the tears flow. Her coach Zouhair Seighir then carried her on his shoulders for a victory lap.

"My coach, he has been with me for about 10 years," she said. "There were so many times when I wanted to give up, when I was losing or things were not going my way. Wrestling is not big in Tunisia, and I would ask him why are there no camps set up for me, why don't I have better sparring partners, he would ask me to calm down and train. He used to be a wrestler in his day, and had played a few international competitions, but never the Olympics. He taught me to dream. He would keep me going on when I wanted to quit."

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The oldest of four siblings, Amri grew up with a sense of responsibility. Her father had died when she was nine and she would help her mother bake bread to keep the household running. At 11, Amri found wrestling.

"I just took it up because I liked it... my school had an indoor hall and mat." Tunis, the capital city that obsessed over football, had little to give a budding woman wrestler. "Forget Tunis, the whole of Tunisia had about seven women's wrestlers when I started," Amri recalls. "I used to spar with boys. While they are stronger, women react to situations differently and come up with techniques or moves that are unexpected." Ask her to explain, and she says that men go more by the textbook while women are better at improvising. "Also, there wasn't much money to fund my international trips. Ahead of the bigger competitions, like the African championships, the government would help but otherwise I had to fend for myself. None of the girls that I started with continued." One of her younger sisters also took up the sport but gave up quickly because she didn't enjoy it. Amri, though, kept stoking her dream. She got a degree in physical education and worked as a PE instructor in a school in the town of El Omrane. The down time was spent watching Indian movies and serials, which were dubbed in Arabic.

"I would work every day. Finish training, then go to work, then back to training." The schedule - two sessions of two hours every day, with a focus on diet and cardio closer to events - wouldn't ease even during the month of Ramadan.

The Olympic dream first became a reality in 2008, when she competed at the Beijing Games. "I finished 10th in Beijing (in 55 kg). But having competed there, I knew I could win an Olympic medal. I was a little better in London (she made the quarterfinals). And this time I just didn't want to let it go." Amri had made the bronze medal bout through the repechage round and pinned down the opportunity with dramatic flair.

Have things changed in Tunisia for women wrestlers? Not really, she concedes; there's too many more girls joining the sport, or sponsors coming in, but she hopes things will change in the near future. "It's not impossible," she says. And another twirl of the bronze medal validates her belief.

(Deepti Patwardhan is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai)