What do you think of when you’re asked to picture a sumo wrestler? A huge Japanese man in a loin cloth, obviously. Not an Indian. Certainly not a woman. And most definitely not an Indian woman.
But Hetal Dave aims to change your perception. She is India’s first and only professional sumo wrestler – and also No. 5 in world sumo rankings.
We could not afford transportation, so we would walk three km to the class and back every day. I can never forget our struggles. Those challenges made us strong
Dave never intended to take up sumo wrestling. She wanted to be a journalist. But her passion for Bruce Lee movies changed her life. “I was so fascinated by him that I started imitating his moves and practicing them on my brother,” remembers Dave. “The way he fought, unafraid of anyone, and the confidence he had in himself, no matter what size his opponent was… I found it all incredible.”
Rajasthan-born Dave was not unacquainted with martial arts. She’d been doing judo since she was five years old. But over the years, practising at her club, she’d watch young men sumo wrestling on the other side of the practice area and followed their moves and techniques. One day in 2006, she mustered the courage to ask her instructor if she could join them, and he agreed.
“I lost a couple of times just to feel what pressure to put where,” says Dave about her early practise. “Once I understood and felt the game, I wanted to take it up professionally.”
She found Bruce Lee’s daring way of fighting ‘incredible’
The 28-year-old played her first professional game in 2008. Today she has played all over the world, participated in the Asian Games and the World Games in places like Estonia, Poland and Taiwan, but her best feat was in 2009 at the World Games in Taipei, China, where she was ranked No. 5 in the world.
“These tournaments are equivalent to the Olympics. The games that are not played in the Olympics are featured here,” smiles Dave. “I made a Limca record for being the only female participant in these events from India over 100 games.”
While Dave is not as well-known in India as we may like, she is renowned the world over. The people she meets at tournaments are always helpful, she says, and her friends cheer for her when she is in the ring.
She is not perturbed by the fact that sport isn’t as well-known in India as it should be. In fact, that was why it interested her. “It was the uniqueness of the game that attracted me,” she says. “I wanted to open doors to it. There will be many players playing this game in future; most of them will not even know me… But when I see them playing for the country, I will be proud that I made a way for others.”
Still, she would like it if at least some of India cheered for her. “I’m happy because I make the country proud at world events, and sad because no one knows about it,” she says wryly.
This lack of awareness also has its fallout in terms of sponsorship, she points out. How can she get sponsors, when no one knows about the game?
“Nobody know who plays and who sponsors… there is no media coverage on winning or losing, so people don’t put their hands in this game…,” Dave says.
Dave believes she’d never be where she is today if it weren’t for her father. “It is because of his sacrifice that we have achieved so much in life,” she says. “He would not buy new clothes or basic necessities so that he could pay my class fees.”
She adds: “We could not afford transportation, so we would walk three km to the class and back every day. I can never forget our struggles. Those challenges made us strong.”
Based on her life and her sport, Dave’s motto in life is: Fight for as long as you can. “There will be people pulling you down, people pretending to be with you, and some truly supporting you, but at the end, you need to have faith in yourself,” she says.
Give her a cheer for leading the way.