Rupinder Kaur Sandhu embraces the otherwise traditionally male genre game of wrestling and makes a mark
It was in 2004 when Rupinder Kaur Sandhu dived into the mud at the wrestling arena of Parasram Pur near Jalalandhar in Punjab, India, to take on an opponent who was a big 60 kg frame. A petite 43-kg Rupinder then was not intimidated. Maintaining a straight eye contact and after three rounds, she brought the big girl down and was declared the winner to a rousing, large crowd. “After the final fight I just fell flat because the girl was so heavy but it was a memorable moment for me. I won Rs 5,000 (100 AUD),” she smiles.
Aamir Khan-starrer Dangal may be scoring big globally now but Rupinder had her Dangal moment many years ago. Encouraged by her father, himself an army man and a great sports enthusiast, she took up Judo and then simultaneously did wrestling where she outplayed many players and won several medals.
From Punjab’s rural settings to now representing Australia in wrestling, Rupinder’s passion for the game shines through. She represented Australia in the 2014 Commonwealth Games held at Glasgow and her recent wins – gold medal (53kg) in the Australia Cup held on June 3-4 and gold medal (48kg) in the Australian National Championships held this May in Sydney – are just an indicator that she is going for the shots to improve her standing in the game. Her eyes are now set on the 2018 Commonwealth Games. But first let’s track her incredible journey.
Born in 1985 in Patiala, Rupinder had no inclination towards sports as a child. She also says she did not take after the tall frame of her father unlike her sister and attributes her small frame to her mother who was also not so keen on her joining sports but, who nonetheless revelled in her every win. Rupinder started with Judo at Year Six following the footsteps of her elder sister. “She was a good player and would often show off her moves at home. I was petrified of her so I started joining the classes,” laughs Rupinder.
But more than that, it was also the family environment that nurtured their interests. “Most Indian families do not encourage the daughters to take up sports but my father was very interested that his children took up sports,” says Rupinder, adding, “My mother was more worried about the injuries we would suffer and that we might become undesirable to potential suitors. In fact I used to walk like a boy. But again, my mother was the happiest whenever I won a medal; she would tell everyone.”
Rupinder’s family lived at a farmhouse between a village and a town near Tarn Taran, which was a boon for her as it had its privacy. Often there were times when she and her sister returned late from competitions or trainings – something that would have been frowned at if they were living in a village, she says. “If we were in the village people would have talked that their girls come home late. But our family including grandparents and uncles were all supportive of us.”
While she was playing Judo, Rupinder won gold and silver medals at the national level games and alongside started dabbling in wrestling. By the time she completed her graduation from Amritsar University, she had won countless medals in both sports right from inter-college and inter-university levels to national levels. In 2003, Rupinder had her first international exposure in Turkey where she brought home a gold medal.
In 2007 she found herself in the company of friends who were busy writing IELTS English tests to study in Australia. While the prospect of going abroad held very little appeal for Rupinder, before she even realised she was on a flight to Australia to study hospitality. “I think it was the peer pressure. I thought I will give myself two years, continue my game here and go back to India if I didn’t like it.”
In Melbourne she got in touch with the United Wrestling Club in Epping and started training. Life was no cake walk in the beginning, she reflects, as opposed to being in India “where you think, eat and live wrestling only”. Juggling studies, job and training all at once in Melbourne, she did not give up. After four years of persistent training and hard work, she could finally enter a global competition. “Just because I was already established to an extent as a wrestler didn’t mean I could enter a competition straightway. I had to put in four years of hard work and involvement before I had my first international competition. It’s been a long journey.”
Establishing her credibility as a national player, Rupinder was given Australian citizenship in 2012 within a month to represent Australia at the Commonwealth Championship games in South Africa, and at 2014 also represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games in Scotland. Unfortunately, she did not win both times. Of the 2014 Games, she says, “I always play in the 48 kg category but when my weight was checked for the game it was a bit over 49 kg. I had half an hour to lose my weight. I tried my best but it was still 200 grams up so they put me in the 53 kg category. So, of course, the girls I was fighting with were heavier and I was very sad that I had to play in upper category.”
Although Rupinder came back very disappointed, she came back with a newer resolve. The feeling of pride in representing her adopted country is something she wants to relive. The other fond memories of the 2014 Games was meeting the Phogat sisters (her friends) who have become more famous because of Dangal and her other friends from the wrestling fraternity in India.
But marriage came calling in 2013 and Rupinder tied the knot which saw a brief hiatus in her career. She had her baby in 2016 and spent time with her family. But six months after the birth, the wrestling bug began to gnaw at her. After consulting her doctor, she began training at home and at a newer club closer to her home to dedicate more time to the game.
Her comeback has been dramatic giving her observers a bit of a shock. She went on to win the gold at the National Games in Sydney this May. The National meet is a preparation for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, she reveals. This June she bagged gold again at the Australia Cup in Melbourne. In November she will attend the trial meet for Commonwealth Games where wrestlers from all over the country will meet in Canberra. “It will be a tough competition and I have to be very careful of maintaining my weight.”
Rupinder admits to being nervous competing after three years. Her opponent from Queensland at the National Games, she recalls, was a tough one who was well versed in the in mixed martial arts style. But inevitably, Rupinder showed that technical superiority is enough to win a game. She also had the confidence and support of her coach, her family and most importantly, her husband.
Right now, training is full. Rupinder sticks to her vegetarian diet that includes milk, yoghurt, ghee and some protein drinks. “I get told there is no strength in vegetarian food but I have proven that I can train, fight and come out successful on the strength of my food.”
Wrestling is all about stamina and technique, says Rupinder. “If you continue with one hour of wrestling every day then only can you put in 3 mins on the arena. It is very intense.”
Right now there are a series of fights lined up. In September she will be heading off to Turkey to compete at the Asian Indoor and Martial Art games. A final trial for the Commonwealth Games in Canberra awaits in November, and then there is the Commonwealth Championships in South Africa in December. If selected in Canberra, she will once again be donning the coveted green and yellow uniform for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Unlike other popular sprits, wrestling does not garner much remuneration and the idea of playing for money is quite an alien concept. “We never earn that big money from the sport, in fact we earn more from our jobs… This is just a passion,” reflects Rupinder.
Great wrestlers are supposed to be at once humble athletes, Rupinder has plenty of humility.
By Indira Laisram