Who says Sumo wrestling is confined to Japan? India's Hetal Dave is here to prove all your myths wrong
When one thinks of Sumo-wrestling as a competitive sport, the mind generally wanders off to packed stadiums in Tokyo with overweight men trying to topple each other, over a line. However, a look at India’s only professional female Sumo wrestler is set to destroy all existent stereotypes
For the past eight years, Hetal Dave from Mumbai has been the lone participant of an ancient sport from another country, which is traditionally restricted to men. But her achievements as India’s only representative will surely raise a few eyebrows.
The 26-year old looks unlike your average sumo-wrestler. Fit, athletic and focused, Hetal’s unlikely journey in the sport began as early as 2007. She said, “The sport I began my sporting career was Judo. My Coach used to regularly travel to Japan, and used to come back and show us the basics of the sport. It had immediately caught my attention.”
From Youtube videos to World Championship
In the beginning, Hetal was not allowed to participate as the sport was restricted to Men only. Slowly, but steadily her interest convinced the Coach to give her one chance. She added, “Through my observations and previous Judo experience I started fighting against the Men, I was defeating three out of five times. Post that I took the help of youtube and started getting my basics right.”
By 2008, she successfully qualified for her first World Championship, but lack of knowledge about the sport in India’s mind space meant sponsors were hard to come by. The Indian Sumo Wrestling Association, which governs the sport is a small body without the required facilities to sponsor its players.
Hetal added, “The association can only forward the names to the World Championship organisers. We have to fund our own tickets, stay, basically everything. People don’t know much about Sumo, hence they don’t care. That is why I haven’t been able to participate since 2012. Some potential sponsors even go to the extent of saying, ‘Ladki hoke sumo khelte ho,’ which is difficult to hear.”
Other sponsor reactions might induce hysteria, she added, “My dad had once gone to a particular sponsor, he replied ‘Humein Tata Sumo mein invest karne ka koi interest nahi hai,’ so in short it’s been difficult to garner sponsors.”
Despite these financial barriers, Hetal has represented India in Estonia, Poland and Taiwan. Her marquee performance came at the 2009 World Games in Taipei, which is considered the Olympics for non Olympic recognised sports, where she finished fifth in the middleweight category.
At first glance, her diminutive 5’6” figure might not be intimidating, but her performances surely pack a punch. She also holds the Yokuzuna rank in Sumo Wrestling, which is the highest rank one can garner as a professional.
Hetal isn’t the massive overbearing Japanese Sumo wrestler, she weight only 78 kgs, and believes in inner strength. She said, “It’s a wrong conception that Sumo wrestler are fat, it depends on you, how you treat your body, I personally am vegetarian, If I can do it like this, anyone can.”
Indian ignorance, foreign appreciation
While India’s Sports Ministry is not ready to recognise Sumo as an official sport, foreign countries have taken notice of Hetal’s talent. She said, “When I was travelling for the World Championship to Estonia, I was very nervous as I was going alone again. But, once the Sumo Wrestling fraternity of Tallinn came to know I was going there, there was Euphoria. The City’s Mayor himself came down to receive me and his daughter asked me about why I took up the sport and why I didn’t want to move abroad. I told her I wanted to represent my Country.”
The world Sumo Wrestling Federation is also aware that Hetal is vegetarian. They make special nutrition rich food for her in every tournament. At the 2009 World Games, Hetal narrowly missed out on a bronze medal, after partly being sponsored by the Tata’s. She added, “That was one of the biggest moments of my life, it still gives me the confidence of moving forward.”
There is no Sumo Ring in India, this means Hetal has to regularly outsource her practice to natural terrain, and in this case, the Oval Maidan in South Mumbai. Due to a lack of training partners, her brother Akshay regularly wrestles against her during training sessions.
Don't want any talented kid to give up on his/her dream: Hetal
After doing a bunch of warm-up exercises, they joust against each other, applying the various techniques she learned online. In fact, this is exactly how she practiced ahead of the World Games. One can only imagine what her performance would be like, if she had a regular coach, access to better infrastructure and access to tournaments.
Her Father Sudhir Dave quit his job to help Hetal follow her dream of being the world’s number one Sumoka. She said, “My family is very involved in my Sumo dream, I’m very lucky to have parents who are so supportive, because that negative mentality of girls playing sport in India still exists.
Having been inactive from the competitive side of Sumo, Hetal is still hopeful of finding sponsors. She said, “I will not give up at any cost, I still train everyday because I know that I will find sponsors. I could find it for four years, I can find it now.”
To raise a partial amount for future tournaments, she is opening an academy for various sports. She added, “My goal is to promote every sport in an equal amount. This will help in doing that and will also give me some much needed money for my future tournaments.”
In terms of sponsorship for this calendar year, things look bleak. Despite approaching people doorstep to doorstep, the efforts have been no avail. She said, “I can’t blame anyone, it’s my responsibility to get these funds, and I won’t stop until I get them. I know people ridicule my ambition, but it has bared fruit so far.”
Whether Hetal can garner enough money to fund her trip to future World Championship, only time will tell, but her achievements are an exemplary example of charting one’s own destiny.