When girls her age were busy watching cartoons and playing house, five year old Hetal Dave was busy watching Jackie Chan movies. Hetal says, “Since childhood, I wanted to do something different”. Seeing his little girl’s unrelenting desire to do something like she saw her idol Chan do, Hetal’s father took her for a class to learn Karate. It so happened that day, the centre had a Judo class, “I call it destiny,” she says.
Today, Hetal is India’s first woman sumo wrestler. She played her first tournament at the age of seven. “I’ve faced too many defeats. If it were to be someone else, they would’ve given up the idea of even playing. But my hard work paid off and my career took a turn, and I continued.” Hetal has represented India in global sumo competitions and was placed fifth in the women’s middleweight category at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan.
Her parents and brother, Akshay have been with her every step of the way. Did she have the pressure to study? She breaks into a laugh and says, “While other kids were studying to get better marks, I was only focusing on passing. My parents knew where my interest lied and encouraged me to pursue it”. Hetal says that since the beginning, her focus was only sports and it has always been that way.
With the focus being on sports, Hetal was different in more ways than one. While girls and boys her age were busy preening themselves and discussing their crushes, Hetal was slogging it out with rigorous practice sessions. Does she feel like she missed out on all that teenage excitement and rush? “Not at all. I had a goal. I still have a goal. I didn’t want to look left and right. I was looking straight at my goal. And that’s the only thing that mattered.”And what is that big goal? “I want to be called an Olympian. And I’m still playing so that’s why goal. After this, I want to be called a good teacher.” Hetal teaches as well. One of her students has just played at the national level. “I want to be called as a national champion’s teacher. I’ll continue to teach and one day, I’ll be called that.”
We come back to her school days. With the sport she chose and not being a dainty girl, was she ever victim to bullies in school? “No one ever dared to,” she tells us as she laughs. Hetal says that ragging was a huge part of the college culture. She recalls, “Someone did come to rag, but went back scurrying for cover.”
“I’m one of the guys when all of my friends meet”. She adds, “In fact, all the boys helped me complete my journals in schools. I have an amazing supportive group with me. I’m one of them, I never feel left out.”
Hetal comes from a conservative Brahmin community in Rajasthan. “Girls aren’t even allowed to go out of the house and such restrictions are still there in some families,” she tells us. “Studying itself is a huge deal for girls from the community and sports is just unheard of. Over that, a sport that mostly has men and that too half naked is just outrageous to them.” Hetal says that her parents and she don’t pay heed to what the community has to say. “They don’t come fend for us, so why should we care what anyone has to say?”
I changed two schools. With an impish grin she tells us, “I failed ninth standard and had to change schools.” The second school she went to understood her career choices and allowed her flexible timings. Teachers supported her completely and the school became an enjoyable experience. College was obviously easier with the whole setup being relatively lax. “My PE (physical education) teacher at college is the most amazing person. He’s supported me as a father. You can say that I have two fathers. ”
If women in sports get more exposure they will do better than the boys – Shiba Maggon
Hetal’s family is not well off and she has to struggle. Along with practising, Hetal is also teaching in a government school to manage her finances. When her father used to take her to the Judo classes as a child, they didn’t have the money for travelling both ways. “While coming back, my father would plop my brother on his shoulders, take our bags and we would walk back home. He would engage my brother and me with stories, songs and our surroundings, so that we don’t realise how far home was or that we had to walk it. We were young and how could a father explain that he didn’t have the money to travel back by bus.”
Despite finances being tight, Hetal’s father took her to the best teacher in Mumbai, Cawas Billimoria. “He is the most celebrated Judo master in India and an Olympian as well. He was the costliest teacher but he never took any money from us. My dad initially paid but when he (Hetal’s teacher) saw her talent and persistence, he told my dad – I would want to teach your kids.” Hetal trains and teaches under Cawas.
“I can earn money if I want but I want to do something different. I want to open an academy for underprivileged girls and teach them. I want to give them a good path.” Does she not get frustrated about India not being very kind to its sportspeople, barring cricket of course? Hetal’s answer surprises us. “No I don’t feel frustrated. I’ve been approached from other countries with the offer to come and play for them. But I chose to play for India. I am not expecting anything from anyone. All I want is, if I’m doing something, just don’t stop me. I don’t want any negativity, that’s all.”
She adds, “Judo is relatively new and it’s only a matter of time for it to reach more popularity in India. Cricket has been there for much longer, it has a stronger association and base. Judo just needs time, I’m sure it will flourish.”
Defeats can crush you and put you in a dark place where you question everything. What happens when her chips are down? Where does she seek all the strength to rise again? Pat comes the reply, “My dad. As a kid, and even now, if I lose, the next morning he comes to me and says – it’s OK. We’ll just work harder for the next thing. He’s always been giving me positive energy and it is with his energy and enthusiasm that I play. He’s my lucky charm. I don’t lose when I take him along.”
Hetal is 28 now and we ask her if people ask her the quintessential question of when she will marry. “People do ask but I don’t feel any pressure. Although I do feel that I need a companion now.” She giggles and tells us, “I want someone who will stand next to my dad, outside the ring, and shout for me – come on Hetal! Keep going Hetal! That’s the picture I imagine.”
Hetal’s family has gone above and beyond in supporting Hetal. Despite having no expectations from the government and other such bodies, does she not feel that some sort of help would make life a little simpler for her family? “Not just little, life would be a lot easier.” She adds, “I have no sponsors. When tournaments are coming up, people start practicing harder, but I have to run door to door to look for sponsors. I have to personally go to people to speak to them and see if they are willing to sponsor me.” She adds, “I’ve not been able to play in 2012 because I did not have a sponsor. If I don’t play, I won’t qualify for Olympics. I’m in desperate need of a sponsor.”
Hetal last played at the Asian Championship in Poland in 2012. She hopes for nothing more than to continue playing. On a parting note, she says, “All I need is a sponsor. I expect nothing else. I just want to continue playing but that is impossible without sponsorships. For a sports person it is heart breaking to practice day in and day out and not be able to represent your country.”