“I want to make sure that a bigger function takes place for me in my village. I want to win a bigger medal,” says wrestler Antim Panghal, referring to the welcome she received in her village — the nondescript Bhagana, situated about 20km from Hisar in Haryana — on her return as India’s first female World under-20 champion.
The junior crown (53kg) has limited appeal for Antim, who celebrated her 18th birthday on August 31. Her unquenchable thirst for excellence has driven her to the top in quick time. If she continues to progress at a similar rate, an even brighter future awaits her.
While her historic victory in Sofia last month delights Antim, her defeat to Worlds bronze medallist and three-time Commonwealth Games champion Vinesh Phogat in the national trials — for the CWG and World Championships — upsets her.
“I will have to increase the intensity of my training. My hard work was good enough for the junior level, but not the senior level.
“I like Vinesh. She has more experience. She is older than me and wrestles much better than me. She handles her bouts smartly. I have to learn these elements,” says Antim.
Realising an ambition
Her desire to be the best pushed Antim in Sofia. “Before the competition, my coach asked, ‘How far can you go?’ I said, ‘I want to become the champion.’ When four of our girls lost to their Japanese opponents, I thought, ‘Come what may, I will not lose to a Japanese wrestler [she pinned Ayaka Kimura in the quarterfinals].’
“The final [an 8-0 win over Kazakhstan’s Altyn Shagayeva] was the toughest. There was pressure as I didn’t want to lose the final bout.”
Amid a flood of congratulatory messages, the compliments from decorated boxer Amit Panghal inspired Antim the most. “I felt really good when I learnt that Amit Panghal welcomed me. I am a Panghal. He, too, is a Panghal. I like him a lot,” says the teenager.
Antim’s quest for excellence is backed by several other qualities that make a champion.
“Antim is a hard-working girl, very punctual. She is always there five minutes before the scheduled time of her training. She goes deep into every aspect of the sport and understands it thoroughly, keeps asking questions – how to perform a move, what to take in her diet, etc. She takes care of every small thing,” says Vikas Bhardwaj, one of the coaches who trained Antim from her early days at the Baba Laldas akhara in Hisar.
“About a year ago, there was a senior dangal on mat at a nearby village and Antim emerged as the champion in the 57kg category. After that, we took special care of her. Now she has proved herself by becoming the World under-20 champion.”
Antim, who was initiated into wrestling by older sister Sarita in 2016, has faced a number of challenges during her short journey so far.
After Sarita, a kabaddi player at the village level, convinced her parents that Antim should try an individual sport, preferably wrestling, the immediate roadblock was the absence of good coaching in their village.
Antim was enrolled at the Baba Laldas akhara but could not focus on her training. The farming family had to move to Hisar in order to facilitate the young girl’s wrestling practice.
Her parents Ram Niwas Panghal and Krishna Kumari named her Antim (‘the last one’) because they did not want another daughter; she was the fourth before they had a son. But she was the household’s pampered child.
They also supported her resolutely. They moved to a rented house in Hisar before building their own near her akhara. Then when Antim encountered another challenging period — her mother was afflicted with a serious illness — they ensured that her wrestling schedule wasn’t hurt.
“It was a difficult phase as my sister used to go away for her studies and my mother did the household chores alone at home. In spite of that, she never told me to do anything after my return from training. Now she is fine,” says Antim.
Bhardwaj adds, “Antim lost focus when her mother did not keep well. It was important to support her when she was going through a tough time. We did just that.”
Antim’s career has taken off over the last year or so. The teenager — who won a World under-17 bronze, an Asian under-20 gold, an Asian under-23 silver, a Ranking Series gold medal in Tunisia (on senior international debut) and the World under-20 crown — has established herself as one of the finest talents in the country.
Analysing her own game, Antim says, “I try to get four to six points early through attacks and then I don’t take risks and do counterattacks.”
Chief national coach Jitender Yadav has high hopes for Antim, who is swift in both attack and defence. “Antim has a good all-round game. Her stance gives her the flexibility to initiate attacks without giving a hint to her rival. She has a habit of clocking big-margin wins. If she remains injury-free, she can be a good prospect for the country,” says Yadav.
Nevertheless, Antim needs to have a look at her workload as she attempts to make her mark at the elite level.
“For the last five-six months she has been travelling and competing regularly,” says Bhardwaj.
“Reducing weight frequently also takes its toll on the body. There was some pain in her shoulder because of which she could not give her best in the World Championships trials.
“She got a week’s rest to address the minor issue. Next she will compete in the National Games and the National championships this year. But planning is necessary. We, the coaches, have set a target that Antim should become an Olympic medallist in the coming years.”
Antim, too, has the self-belief to go for her Olympic dream. And Paris 2024 is her obvious target.
“If I continue with my hard work, I am sure of qualifying for the Olympics and getting a medal there,” she says.
The Vinesh challenge
For that, she may have to get past the gritty and seasoned Vinesh first.
Bhardwaj tries to put things in perspective and has devised a plan that may help Antim.
“Vinesh has given several years to wrestling. She is an Olympian and 10 years older than Antim. Vinesh fought back in the last 15 seconds in the Commonwealth Games trials. Experience makes a big difference.
“We are studying the bouts, making Antim understand where she could have done better. She needs to practise certain moves and train with more intensity,” says Bhardwaj.
Sarita, who tracks Antim’s progress on a daily basis even after getting married, chips in with some positive advice.
“Antim was a little disappointed [after her loss to Vinesh]. I told her, ‘Vinesh knows how to handle her opponents. You will also learn these things with experience,’” says Sarita.
“I advise her not to be overconfident and focus on her hard work.”
With a strong support system around her, Antim will surely use it to her advantage as she sets out on a journey to stamp her class on the elite stage.