Navjot Kaur burst into tears as coach Kuldeep Malik rushed to envelop her with the Indian flag and hoisted her atop his shoulders. The celebrations were completely warranted. On Friday evening at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Kaur had just beaten Japan's Myu Imai 9-1 in the women's 65kg final to make history - becoming the first Indian woman to win gold at the Asian Championships.
To most observers, Kaur would have appeared completely unrecognisable as she twice threw Japan's Imai for four points. "I had nothing to lose and I was finally wrestling without fear," she said. Kaur says she used moves she had last used as a junior. The second of her throws, at five minutes and thirty seconds of the match, was set up with a technique known as the tang. It is an audacious move that she had shelved long ago because of its propensity to get her pinned. Yet when it counted the most, Kaur risked it all. She stuck her leg out teasingly, baiting Imai into grabbing it in hopes of a takedown. Just when the Japanese overbalanced in eager anticipation of two easy points, Kaur used her strength to flick her leg upwards, toppling the still-attached Imai. "I had stopped using this technique because I was not confident of myself. But today, I decided to try it and it worked," said Kaur.
Few would have expected the historic moment to come from Kaur. Perhaps not even the 28-year-old herself. "It is a very big moment for me, the greatest day of my life because I had not achieved anything in the last four years," she said over the phone from Bishkek.
It was in complete contrast to her emotions just a couple of months ago. On December 30, 2017, Kaur endured one of the lowest points of her career when she was beaten in the selection trials for the Indian Commonwealth Games squad. "She got up that morning with a severe back strain. She took a painkiller and fought, but she was in no condition to wrestle," recalls roommate and friend Shilpi Sheoran.
It was a devastating moment for Kaur, the latest flareup of the chronic pain in her back, an injury that began as a slipped disc at the end of 2014. "I was just so depressed after I lost in the trials. I am a very religious person so I kept asking God what I should do," she recalls.
It was the latest setback to a career that appeared to be stalling. Kaur had been a bright prospect as a junior, winning a bronze at the 2009 World Juniors and a gold at the Asian Junior Championships the same year. Her results at the senior level weren't as impressive. She won a silver at the 2013 Asian Championships in 2013, a bronze at the same event in 2011 but her career seemed to have peaked at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, where she claimed a bronze. "As her form fell, her confidence also went. She was very talented and hardworking but she made mistakes at crucial moments," says coach Malik.
"After the slipped disc, it was just so hard to return. There were people who told me I was finished and I would cry because I thought that was true," she recalls. It was the first time, she remembers, her father asked whether she wanted to continue.
Sukhchain Sidhu, a farmer in Tarn Taran, near Amritsar, had always encouraged his daughters to wrestle right from when they began in 2004. "He pushed both me and my sister Navjeet to wrestle, even when the other villagers would say this wasn't something a girl did. He always supported me. But when he saw how much I struggled, he also said maybe it was time to stop," she says. Kaur had no intention of quitting. "I had put in so much effort into wrestling. There was no way I was going to quit unless I had achieved something," she says.
Kaur eventually went to Mumbai and underwent rehabilitation for her injury. She finally fought her way back to the national team only for the injury to flare up once again. But she persisted. "Navjot is very strong physically. But she had to show a lot of mental strength then. She said she wouldn't give up until she won something," recalls Alka Tomar, a former compatriot, now coach with the women's team in Lucknow.
"It is a very big moment for me, the greatest day of my life because I had not achieved anything in the last four years" Navjyot Kaur
Kaur competed in the trials for Asian Championships, and swept away the competition. It helped that she was competing in the 65kg category, one weight class below the 69kg she had been competing for most of her career. "It was harder for her to cut her weight down to 65kg and it put her at risk of an injury but she became much faster," says Tomar.
Despite her improvements in speed, Kaur still doubted herself, chanting Sikh prayers to calm herself. The competition was crafted as a round robin in the group stages. This meant that although Kaur lost a close 4-4 decision to Japan's Imai in her opening game, she won her other match to advance to the semifinal where she beat Mongolia's Enkhbayar Tsevegmedi to set up a rematch against Imai. "God gave me a second chance and I had to take it," she says.
Kaur hopes the confidence from the gold medal carries on into the future. "Maybe this can be the turning point for me. I haven't got a chance to go to the Commonwealth Games, but I have still managed to create history. But I can't stop here. I missed going to the Rio Olympics because of my injury. Now my goal is the Tokyo Olympics. I think there is still something left for me to achieve," she says.