Elle Mentors

Inside the mind of gold medallist Geeta Phogat

Meet the real life Dangal champion

Thanks to last year’s bumper hit Dangal, everyone and their cousin is an expert on the life of Geeta Phogat, gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games 2010. Aamir Khan lent his muscle to the Bollywood adaptation of the pro wrestler's journey, starring Fatima Sana Shaikh and Sanya Malhotra in the lead roles. Slicing through the biopic's fact vs. fiction debates, Phogat let us into her mind, from what she was thinking on the mat to clapping back at body image issues.

ELLE: What do you consider your biggest accomplishment?

Geeta Phogat: The Commonwealth Games of 2010 brought fame to me and my family. That medal gave me a lot of motivation to do better.

ELLE: What crossed your mind when you were on the mat?

GP: I couldn’t sleep at all the previous night as I had a lot of hopes riding on me, a lot of expectations as this sport is considered a man’s game in India. Secondly, I had pressure from my family, to win the gold medal specifically. The government had also announced that the gold medallist would win Rs 20 lakh from the central government, so the motivation was to win only the gold medal. My semi-final opponent was very tough and I was a little scared. But my father's training gave me confidence to believe that I would win. I knew if I won, the gold would be mine because the semi-final opponent was the toughest in the competition.

ELLE: So what do you consider your biggest loss?

GP: When I entered the senior level, I did not listen to my father, but began to follow what the coaches would say. That’s when I started to lose games. That, according to me, was my weakest time, as I was unsure if I could continue to wrestle any further. But as I resumed my father’s training for the Commonwealth Games, I started to recover.

ELLE: We have heard a lot about your father, tell us more about your mother? What has been her influence in your life?

GP: It’s true that my father has taught me wrestling, but as important as it is for a wrestler to train, our diet is equally crucial, which my mother took care of. My mother would wake up at 4 am with us, and would ensure that our milk, curd and almonds were kept ready for us when we got back. Right from taking care of our cows and cooking for the household to cleaning the house, everything was done by our mother.

ELLE: When you started wrestling, I’m sure people asked many questions about how a female wrestler would find a husband. Did those comments ever lower your self-confidence?

GP: Yes, people used to tell me things like ‘who will marry you when you will break their ears’ , ‘you will start to look like a boy’. But these things never affected me, as I had full confidence in my physique. I would also receive compliments for my physique by people who I would train with.

ELLE: How did you meet your husband?

GP: I met Pawan during the 2012 Olympics. He’s two years younger than me. He sent me a friend request on Facebook and messaged me saying he is a big fan of mine, but I did not respond very well. Then he messaged me saying he misses me — I wondered how it went from a Facebook friendship to “missing”, so I blocked him. But then in 2014, we had a national camp set up for men and women together where I saw him. We started talking after that.

ELLE: Is there any strains of competition or jealousy, given that you come from the same field?

GP: It all depends on your mentality. I feel that fame and money comes by God’s grace, destiny and hard work. Success in your career is independent of how a person is at heart.

ELLE: Haryana gets plenty of negative press about women’s safety. How did you deal with that growing up?

GP: It all depends on what values your parents instill in you. Our father taught us to fight for ourselves and told us he was there if anything got out of hand. He never taught us to back down, and always encouraged us to believe that we are equal.

ELLE: What’s the biggest obstacle that women need to overcome to be successful in sports?

GP: It is very important to stay focused on your goal no matter what. But it’s a lot easier for adults, as they can believe in themselves. For children, the parents and the people around you need to teach you to believe that you are not inferior to anybody.