Ahmednagar's wrestling girl prodigy faces several uncertainties amidst poverty and lockdown
Her father has been her constant support, even at the cost of earning the extended family's ire.
The pandemic has put the world on a pause. All Sports competition and tournaments were affected, including the Olympic games, which were postponed to the next year of 2021. This made it very difficult for players to continue their practice and workouts, especially for players from rural India, but Sonali and her father Kondiba Mandlik found a way to tackle this. They cleaned the place next to their small house and changed into the ground where Sonali could practice for her wrestling and work out.
Sonali is from the Kaparewadi village in the Karjat tehsil of Ahmednagar District and has brought gold for Maharashtra in wrestling in the 'Khelo India Youth Games' held at Guwahati in January this year.
“My father is my inspiration. Be it fighting in the game on the wrestling mat or the pressure of the society criticizing a girl kusti player, he has been standing strong for me,” says Sonali, who was able to practice at a sports facility at Shrigonda near Ahmednagar before the COVID induced lockdown in Maharashtra.
With exemplary performance in Kusti from when she was as young as 10, Sonali has proven her talent and handwork winning over every hurdle. Coming from a small marginal farmer family from a village in Maharashtra she has proven like it has been time and again that if given opportunity, girls can bring as much gold and glory in sports even facing poverty and difficulties.
“In the beginning, a girl playing Kusti was not acceptable for many and most of the relatives were unhappy. Others said a girl cannot play Kusti. I wanted to prove them wrong. Girls are not inferior. They can do anything,” says Kondiba Mandlik, Sonali's father, who has supported her during the practice Kusti sessions which were usually with other male participants from the local area.
Maharashtra has a great tradition of wrestling and the history of legendary players including Khashaba Jadhav won a bronze medal at the 1952 summer Olympics. He was the first athlete from independent India to win an individual medal in the Olympics. The fight for women players though is still quite difficult.
Sonali studies 12th at an Art College in Karjat. Inspired by the father’s passion for the Kusti she started having an interest in the game. In 2015, while studying in 6th, she played her first national in Gujarat and got her first medal in Wrestling.
“It was a great boost as a player, in the beginning, to win the medal in the first match. This kept me inspired. Later, nationals in Andhra Pradesh and one in Madhya Pradesh, I could not win any game. I won a bronze in 2016 for nationals held in Maharashtra. And there was no looking back since. Apart from the medals and glory, the journey gave me confidence as a girl and I am happy for it,” says Sonali with confidence.
In 2017-18 school games, Sonali won a gold including a bronze in the 'Khelo India Youth Games' held in Delhi. She again won gold in 'Khelo India' held in Guwahati in January 2020. In 2019 she missed the 'Khelo India Games' held in Pune last year.
Talking about her journey she said, “The difficulties from the beginning were mostly related to our poor economic condition. There was no money to arrange my expenses for even the travel to reach the nearby city. My father struggled a lot, in the beginning, to arrange my diet expenses and run the family at the same time with a meagre income from the small non irrigated farm.”
Kaparevadi is four kilometres from the Karjat town, a drought-prone region in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra with mostly non-irrigated landholding and farmers dependent on the Monsoon rains for water.
“We have been living in the same shelter and house, made out of tins like temporary arrangements. We feel helpless most of the time that we cannot provide the full economic support to our girl but she has brought us much pride with whatever she could get from us as a family.”
Kondiba, with a piece of few acres of land, has a family of five people, a wife, another daughter studying in 10th and a young boy and Sonali. There is no other source of income apart from the medals and some prizes received in the competitions so far.
Sharing his experience as a father of a girl who chose to play a wrestling game fighting against the norms of the society he says, “My daughter winning medals was a blow for them who once discouraged us. I had broken the societal norms that girls should get married after 18 years. I supported her to join the game which once was the game of men alone.”
Kondiba shares his experience of when he did not stop supporting her for the game and rather encouraged her to play against boys for practice sessions in the beginning, some relatives just ostracised them and stopped talking to the family at that time.
“We have to break these norms. It did not bother me that my relatives were unhappy after she started playing. What I cared for were her passion and dreams. She has brought fruits to our efforts. This is her own victory. I, including my wife, just supported her.”
Sonali gets up early in the morning at 4 o'clock to exercise for two days without fail. She manages her college studies and also supports the family. When asked about what facilities should provide for the players especially for rural areas, she says, “The government should start the sports facilities in towns as small as ours. There is a Kusti sports facility available at Karjat but it is for boys. I have been practising in Shrigonda since last one and a half year."
Reminiscing her early practice days, she says, "My father used to accompany me four kilometres to reach Karjat for the practice. He had to manage farm work and also spare time for me. There are many girls in the rural area like me who are passionate about sports but everyone is not lucky to have a father like me who gave his local and extended support. Most of the girls from my group had joined the game but they were helpless without the family support. If your family supports you then who cares for society.”
When asked about the ground-level situation of sports and involvement of girls, Subhaschandra Tanpure, organizer of Kabbadi games and encouraging sports here at Karjat, he said, “The sports facilities should be started in the rural area at every taluka place and the same time the importance of sports should reach to the students. Parents nowadays have become positive about girls playing sports and this is helpful. Apart from the government job some financial aid should be provided for students participating in the game to maintain their diets and purchasing equipment.”
Sonali has Sakshi Malik as her role model. She remembers Sakshi's birthday falling in September next month. Sakshi Malik is an Indian freestyle wrestler. At the 2016 Summer Olympics, she won the bronze medal in the 58 kg category, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics and the fourth female Olympic medalist from the country.
Sonali aims to win gold for India in Wrestling in 2024 Olympic Games, a forthcoming international multi-sport event that is scheduled to take place from 26 July to 11 August 2024 in Paris, France.
“I am happy that now the mindset of the people around me has changed. We are living in the same small shelter. I am still not able to build a pucca house but apart from the personal achievement of my daughter, I am happy for other girls who will join the sports-inspired by my daughter,” says, Kondiba with a mellow but firm voice.