Reigning Asian champion, a proud owner of six national titles and an Asian Games bronze, Pooja needs no introduction. What makes her journey from the cradle of Indian boxing in Haryana’s Bhiwani to Tokyo even more fascinating is her perseverance and the willpower to bounce back stronger.
Fresh from a clinical 5-0 win over Mavluda Movlonova of Uzbekistan in the women’s 75kg class for her second successive Asian Championship crown (after the 81kg title in the 2019 edition), followed by a month-long training camp in Italy, Pooja looks set for the tougher battle ahead in the Japanese capital.
Pooja’s win over world champion Atheyna Bylon in March this year at the Boxam International Tournament in Spain, where she won a silver, also testifies her growing dominance in the middleweight category but the 30-year-old prefers to remain grounded.
“There can’t be a favourite in any category since the best boxers qualify for the Olympics. In my category, there are boxers like Li Qian (China), Tamara Thibaut (Canada), Melissa Naomi Graham (USA) and Ariane Fortin (Netherlands), who can be lethal on their day,” Pooja had told TOI during a recent interaction.
𝐓𝐑𝐀𝐈𝐍𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐈𝐍 𝐓𝐎𝐊𝐘𝐎 😍Here are some glimpses as our Baazigars sweat it out at Olympic village ahead of the… https://t.co/1xclKXGzLU
— Boxing Federation (@BFI_official) 1626706688000
Secret Recipe for Tokyo
Pooja, however, didn’t mind spilling the secrets of the rise in her speed, and sharpness in technique in the last couple of years, despite the pandemic affecting training and sparring sessions in the run-up to Tokyo.
“In the past one year or so, I did numerous sparring sessions with male boxers of various weight categories, ranging from 69kg to 81kg during my stay at IIS. To match their speed, I had to lift myself up and that helped sharpen my movements. Also the overseas training sessions in Italy, France and Ireland helped a lot,” she quipped.
Having missed out of 2016 Rio Olympics qualification after a second-round exit at the World Championships, followed by a mishap while bursting Diwali crackers that left her nursing a burnt hand for six months, Pooja admitted that her confidence was shaken, more so, after a career-threatening shoulder injury on return to training.
While Pooja is now past “her lowest phase”, she conceded that the period helped her analyse her career graph, even as she made up her mind to opt for physiotherapy instead of a surgery for a quicker comeback.
On return, she switched to the 81kg category, considering the lesser number of Indian participants, but it was at the Indian women team’s High Performance Director Raffaele Bergamasco‘s insistence that she returned to her pet 75kg class to seek qualification for the Games.
“When I was making my comeback after the injury and the burnt hand, I decided to switch to 81kg since there are not too many Indians competing in it. After the 2019 gold, Raffaele asked me to get back to the 75kg category, and try to qualify for Tokyo, and thankfully I kept his faith,” she had said.
Raffaele had also exuded confidence on his ward, saying that she has recently gained a lot of lower body strength, which allows her to change her strategy and adapt to the opponent, thus making her one of the boxers to watch out for in Tokyo.