In continuing with our Immigrant Series, we feature Urmi Buragohain this issue. Someone not new to our series, Urmi makes a mark again by clinching yet another bronze medal at the recently concluded World Taekwon-do Championships in London. Having contributed her best to her adopted land, she is now moving bag and baggage to India to ‘give back’. What makes Urmi grab newer challenges in life. Read on…
Few Indian women in Melbourne have succeeded in professional sport and Urmi Buragohain is one of them. For the past 13 years, Urmi has been juggling her life as a full time architect and as a professional taekwon-do player. A late entrant to the game, she trained hard and entered various levels of competition besting many others to clinch bronze medals twice at the international levels.
Few weeks before her July London World Taekwon-do Championships (2016), Urmi talked about how managing full time work and training for an international level championship was hard. “I manage to put in about 8-10 hours of training every week. It involves a range of exercises – from stretching, practising basic techniques, cardio, patterns to free sparring. Sometimes I feel frustrated with my ageing body trying to keep up with the energy and stamina of 20-somethings but then I remember that I am my biggest competition.” Indeed determination and hard work has always shaped her results, giving her the power to sidestep the obstacles of age.
Competing under the senior, welterweight category in London, Urmi brought home the bronze this year, a win she garnered in the 2014 championships held in Rome. But she makes light of her achievements and prefers to delve into the inadequacies of her own game. “It’s the losses that I remember because they are the ones I learnt from. The first time I made it to the Australian team, I sparred against someone 15+ years my junior and someone who was internationally experienced. The outcome was predictable, but I was still pleased that I did not back down. I proudly wore my swollen nose as a badge of honour,” she laughs.
Reaching this level of international competition is no mean feat and Urmi cannot pinpoint one factor that has facilitated her growth. “Perhaps it’s been perseverance. I was not born to be a martial artist, but I am in the process of making myself one through sheer hard work and doggedness.”
Urmi grew up in Assam, India’s north-eastern state known for its red hills, valleys and tea gardens. Her love for martial arts has its resonance somewhere in those growing up years when Bruce Lee films and Chinese goods flooded the market. Although she never took to the game then, she thinks it is the intrinsic childhood memory associated with martial arts that drew her to it in adulthood.
After completing her graduate studies at the JJ School of Architecture, Mumbai, Urmi completed her post-graduation from the Centre for Environmental Planning & Technology University (CEPT) in Ahmedabad. And after a few years of working in Delhi, she and her architect husband migrated to Australia in 2006. It was at that time that they discovered the United Schools of Martial Arts (USMA) Club in Clayton where they lived initially. While her husband eventually dropped out, Urmi persevered in her new found passion. She was taken under the wings of club founder Master Spiridon Cariotis, who received his seventh Dan from International Taekwon-do Federation (ITF) President Choi Jung Hwa Hi in 2014. Dan is the rank of a master.
In 2008, work commitments took Urmi to the Middle East and India for a few years. She realised then this was a sport she wanted to continue. So wherever she was posted she joined clubs and started from scratch. “It did not matter what belt I got into, I just wanted to keep training and keep fit.” But it was later during her two-year stint in Mumbai that she trained under the World Taekwondo Federation (WTF) style and earned a black belt.
When Urmi returned to Australia in 2012, she rejoined the USMA club at Clayton after having trained around the world. . In Australia, her training has been under ITF style.
Although Urmi never looked at tournaments initially, she was picked by her instructor, coach and mentor Cariotis to take part in club and national-level competitions based on her skills. She surprised herself by winning silver medals in two consecutive national championships putting up a good fight against seasoned players and world champions. And having observed her play for a while by top players, the club chose her to take part in the 2014 world championships. She did not disappoint.
For over two decades, USMA Taekwondo has brought martial arts to communities across Melbourne, promoting self-defence, fitness and fostering team spirit. It is the School’s mission to continue teaching martial arts to communities across Melbourne, and build upon the legacy of the founder of Taekwondo, General Choi Hong Hi. And Urmi wears the pride of association with them, quite literally.
After ten years of playing the sport, Taekwon-do has become her passion. “The constant process of learning and self-discovery is exhilarating,” reflects Urmi, adding “Once you are really into something (does not necessarily have to be martial arts) over time it becomes an integral part of you. Taekwon-do defines a part of who I am. I am constantly surprised at my own abilities that I wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. For example, now I know that I am capable of ‘holding my ground’ no matter how difficult the situation might be.”
With a hint of pride, she says, “The realisation of how taekwon-do has helped me grow as a person only dawns on me in hindsight when I look back at the past 10 years of my taekwon-do journey. It has been a completely intuitive process and you don’t realise when you are in the moment as to how taekwon-do is shaping who you are as a person. Taekwon-do has taught me to be humble, the importance of hard work and persistence, never to stop learning and help others when they need help. But most importantly, it has made me realise the importance of being authentic – being true to who I am.”
She also stresses how in today’s increasingly unsafe times, taekwon-do has a particular relevance to vulnerable groups like women and children. “What taekwon-do cannot do is turn everyone into a combat machine, but what it can do is teach people not to be victims of circumstance.”
After winning laurels for Australia, Urmi is now off to her next venture. On some level she seems to have internalised the thought that the opportunities life throws are worth challenging.
She explains that the decision to go back to India has been influenced by many factors. “Going back to India, particularly to north east India, and doing something meaningful to give back to the community I am from has always been at the back of my mind. But my mother’s untimely death last year brought my priorities to the fore as I realised life is too short to keep postponing what you really want to do. And my decision was made easier by the fact that my architect husband Chandi is already working on some interesting projects in his hometown Manipur and is totally supportive of my career change.”
Urmi’s determination for change may be connected to her penchant for challenges and finding something that lights a fire in her. As a trained architect and an urban planner, she is passionate about how the profession makes an impact on the built environment and ultimately people’s lives. Those skills and experiences she wants to apply in the built environment area to help urban communities in north east India re-connect with the spaces that surround them. “As you know, people in our communities are meticulous about looking after their houses and the land within their property boundaries. But this care and attention does not extend beyond the boundaries to encompass the public areas. This is, hopefully, where I can intervene with the help of the locals and other like-minded professionals and institutions.”
Urmi’s career trajectory seems almost from a passionate architect to taekwon-do champion to social worker. Quite fascinating. But one thing is for sure, taekwon-do will remain a constant. “It has become a part of my life. I may stop taking part in tournaments but that is just a small part of what taekwon-do is as a martial art form. I will continue practising the movements, the patterns and keep striving towards the elusive goal of achieving complete harmony of the mind and body.” In India she hopes to find the right instructor and the right school. “If I don’t get the opportunity to continue with my taekwon-do training, I am open to seeking opportunities to train in other forms of martial arts or even boxing.”
Of course there is apparent nostalgia leaving Australia, her adopted country and second home. Urmi recalls being warmly embraced by this country and settling in to the laid back lifestyle when she and her husband arrived 13 years ago. “We were rapt that we could drink water straight out of the tap, find food ingredients from all over the world and that every conceivable comfort was just a credit card swipe away. From a lifelong tea drinker, Melbourne has turned me into a coffee snob. I also feel secretly pleased that I know quite a bit about wines compared to my Indian compatriots. I have also made some lifelong friends who are more like my extended Australian family.”
“Age,” she reiterates, “is just a number. You can achieve anything at any time of your life.” Indeed, the motivation to become successful depends on a mixture of traits. Urmi has plenty of that.
By Indira Laisram