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Meet Hetal Dave, India's first and only female Sumo wrestler. Here's her story of struggle, strife and victory.
Meet Hetal Dave, India’s first and only female Sumo wrestler. Here’s her story of struggle, strife and victory.
When you first talk to Hetal Dave, she seems like the girl next door – full of life and vigour. But, she is more than that, a woman who will walk down the history of sports for being the first woman in India to be a Sumo Wrestler. Yes, you heard it right.
Her journey began at the age of six when her father took her to Karate classes. It so happened that the centre had a Judo centre. She got interested in it. The rest, she calls destiny.
I asked her how it felt to be the only girl in the ring, even when she started. She said, “It could be frustrating because the boys in the centre would not take me seriously and I had no opponent to play with. But I kept concentrating on my game with the help of my coach.”
For Hetal, family played a very important role. When all her friends studied to do well in exams, her parents were okay with her just passing her exams for they knew where her interest lay. Her father stood by her throughout. She adds to it, “I come from a conservative Gujarati family, and then to become a Sumo Wrestler was something beyond imagination. My relatives told my father, “Betiyon se kya koi Kushti karwata hai.” (Does anyone make his daughter wrestle?)” But her parents turned a deaf ear to them, and continued supporting her.
It was a tough journey to play without any Sumo ground in India. And most importantly she had no opponent to play with, but her brother. So every morning, she and her brother would go to the Oval Ground of Mumbai, where people would sometimes stand and stare at her. In a country where cricket is the only game that is truly recognized, a girl playing Sumo is something that people would not expect.
She became known in Mumbai’s martial arts scene and started standing in as a mock partner for male sumo wrestlers.
She said she would win 60 percent of the matches. Her story looks like that of our very own Million Dollar Baby, but the struggle began when she wanted to participate in international championships. The real struggle begins in finding sponsors. In India, though there is a Sumo association, the players have to fend for themselves. Besides, since Sumo wrestling is not an Olympic sport, there is very little awareness of it.
When she had to travel to Estonia for her first international tournament, she ran pillar to post to arrange for sponsors. She says, “People confuse it with Tata Sumo and others just don’t care.” It was then that a Gujarati newspaper carried her story. At 9:30 am the newspaper came out and at 10 am there was a man at the door asking her father to meet someone for sponsorship. A Gujarati businessman signed a cheque that took care of all the expenses. She recalls her first lone visit to Estonia. By some stroke of destiny, the visas of all the male sumo wrestlers were cancelled while only her visa was granted!
She adds how it was a little overwhelming for her to go all alone to a different country for the first time. But she says with a smile, “I was surprised that the Mayor came to receive me. He also called his daughter because she could speak English.”
When asked about her international debut, she talks about how proud she felt when her name was called as Hetal Dave from India. Hetal says, “Having your country’s name called in a foreign country is another feeling, which words can’t describe.” She added that she holds that feeling close to her heart even today.
Subsequently she participated in Taiwan and Poland and was placed 5th in the women’s middleweight category at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan. She also recounted how on her trip to Estonia, she did not have the Maswashi belt, the very belt Sumo players wear while wrestling. She lied to the authorities that she had lost it while travelling. So, her first belt was actually from Estonia.
As we conversed more, she talked about her brother and father, who have been her support throughout. Now she also teaches young girls Judo in Mumbai. She says it’s her dream to see these young girls in the international arena. I then asked her if she wanted to go to Japan, the birth place of Sumo. She replied that there are Sumo clubs where wrestlers are trained, but they are all for men. They don’t train women and the training is so tough that not many Indian Sumo wrestlers have ventured there. She added, “Had women been allowed, I would have done anything to be trained there. But alas! No woman is taken.”
As we wound up the interview, I asked her how does it feels to be Hetal Dave, playing a sport in a country that is almost alien to it, with almost no support. She said, “I feel proud, very proud to be the first woman ever to take up Sumo in this country.” And yes, she should be. Now her struggle begins, to find sponsors for her next international tournament. But like the river she flows; through the steeps, through the gorges, she just flows.
India needs more Hetal Daves in every walk of life.
Cover image via Facebook
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