Prior to the start of the Pro Wrestling League, few would have expected Pooja Dhanda to script the upset of the tournament. On Tuesday night, Dhanda -- competing for the Punjab Royals -- edged out Helen Maroulis 7-6. Heading into the bout, Maroulis, the defending Olympic and two-time world champion, had lost all of one contest over the previous two years. 24-year-old Dhanda, meanwhile, was grateful to just have completed an injury-free season, following almost two years in the wilderness due to injuries.
Before Dhanda scripted her own underdog story, she very nearly starred in another -- one of the most iconic Indian sports movies of all time.
Back in 2014, Dhanda was amongst the most promising wrestlers in the country. She had won a silver at the 2010 Youth Olympics before becoming a senior national champion in 2013. Later that year, she took gold at the 2013 Commonwealth Championships and followed that up with a bronze at the 2014 Asian Championships. Around the same time, Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, was casting for the film Dangal -- the story of Mahavir Phogat whose daughters Geeta and Babita would go on to become Commonwealth gold medalists. One crew came to her wrestling academy in Hisar.
"Just as a joke, I spoke a few lines. I wasn't expecting it to go anywhere but they must have liked it because they called me to Bombay for further casting," she recalls. "I went for more auditions in Mumbai and later I did a casting with Aamir Khan himself. I never really thought of myself as an actor but I think I must have been alright because only (the two actors eventually cast as Geeta and Babita) Fatima (Shaikh), Sanya (Malhotra) and I were asked to stay for the final audition," she says.
Shooting was still several months away while Dhanda returned to the women's national camp in Lucknow. There, she suffered a severe tear to her Anterior Cruciate Ligament -- the ligament that connects the thigh bone to the shin bone. She initially tried to continue with her wrestling, a decision that only made the injury worse. "I lost the team selection trials for the Commonwealth Games and then my injury became so bad I couldn't even walk. So when I was asked to come to Mumbai once again, I simply couldn't go," she says.
After multiple consultations, the decision was made to undergo surgery in Mumbai. Although the surgery was paid for by a government grant, it carried complications of its own: she was required to stay back in the city for a few months to undergo rehabilitation. It was a heavy financial burden on her father Ajmer Singh, a tractor driver at the Haryana Animal Husbandry Center in Hisar.
"Acting is fun but it gets boring. I prefer wrestling instead. It was alright being an actor. But I prefer writing my own story." Pooja Dhanda
It was Dangal that came to her rescue. Dhanda got a call from Kuldeep Singh Bishnoi, who had coached her when she was a junior and was now involved with the film as a wrestling consultant. "Sanya and Fatima were staying in an apartment while they were learning to wrestle and Kuldeep sir arranged for me to stay with them. That was perfect for me," she says.
Unfortunately though, the surgery was not a success. She was unable to even straighten her leg completely. "The rehabilitation was a struggle. My parents didn't know what to do. At first, even the doctors didn't know why the injury was not healing properly. Even my hamstring started to get strained. I was limping and felt as if I was disabled," she says.
Despite willing herself to compete, Dhanda was clearly unfit. In her first tournament on her comeback, she was beaten at the state championships. "It was the lowest point I had been in. Once I was competing and winning medals for India and now I was losing in a state level competition. There were many coaches who told me I was finished and asked how I could wrestle if I couldn't even walk properly," she says.
Eventually, her surgeon decided to look at her knee again where he found that blood clots had developed in the joint. A second surgery was needed. This one in December 2016 was a success. "When my leg straightened, I felt as if it had broken. After two years in that condition, I had simply forgotten what that felt like," she says.
Dhanda's recovery was steady. In November she, won the National Championships -- her first national title since 2013. Earlier that year, she participated in the World Championships. After winning her first match, she lost 12-8 to China's Rong Ningning after having lead 8-0 inside the first two minutes. That loss though only motivated Dhanda.
"Once you miss two years of competition, you make simple mistakes you wouldn't if you wrestled a lot of matches. After taking the 8-0 lead, I got caught on the ground. I'm not good on the ground and I didn't respond well. Against high-quality wrestlers, you can't make these mistakes. But you only learn from them," she says.
"Suffering an injury makes you a lot stronger when you do return. At one point, I wanted to prove a point to others but now I just want to wrestle to my best ability."
Those lessons were on display against Maroulis. Dhanda once again raced to a 7-0 lead but this time refused to be pulled to the ground. "The moment I felt Helen was in a good position, I just stepped out," she says. Dhanda took the 1-point penalty on three occasions, but the trade-off eventually paid.
Victory against Maroulis has only motivated Dhanda further. She will be traveling to the Commonwealth Games, the tournament she was preparing for before being cut down by her injury. Her goals are longer term though -- to cement the 57kg category, which is amongst the most competitive weight categories in India, and perform at the biggest stage of them all. "Geeta wrestled in the 58kg category and then Sakshi Malik won an Olympic bronze in the same weight. It is very difficult to even represent India in this category but there is a lot of responsibility if you do. The Commonwealth Games are important, but my target will be the 2020 Olympics," she says.
Dhanda remains stoic about the injury that nearly took away her career. "Suffering an injury makes you a lot stronger when you do return. At one point, I wanted to prove a point to others but now I just want to wrestle to my best ability," she says. Dhanda doesn't regret missing out on featuring in Dangal either.
"Acting is fun but it gets boring. I prefer wrestling instead. It was alright being an actor. But I prefer writing my own story."