Lifestyle & Belief

India's only female sumo wrestler is lonely

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MUMBAI, India — At 5-foot-7 and 165 pounds, Hetal Dave is strong and sturdy but far from obese. She is perhaps not what you first think of when you hear: India's only female sumo wrestler.

But that she is.

It's just one of the many things that distinguishes Hetal among the women in her family. Unlike her mother and her grandmother, both of whom were married before they were 20, 23-year-old Hetal is unmarried and attending college.

She comes from a conservative family of Brahmins, a Hindu caste associated with priests and scholars — not fighters. But when she was 6, Hetal’s father decided she should learn martial arts to gain physical and mental strength. He enrolled her in a judo class.

“I think the girls should be self-confident,” said her father Sudhir as he sat in the family’s modest apartment in South Mumbai. “If she walks on the road, she doesn’t have to bother. She is ready to face anything.”

As a young athlete, Hetal was not exceptionally skilled or talented, but she proved to be extremely hardworking, said her coach since childhood, Cawas Billimoria, who has represented India in judo at the Olympics.

“If I ever asked her, ‘Hetal, are you tired? Should we stop?’ she would never say ‘Yes,’” Billimoria said as Hetal and her brother practiced wrestling on nearby mats one recent Sunday morning. “[She was] always willing to go on. Sometimes to the point where you want to say, ‘Please, I want to pack up!’ ”

Billimoria became a role model to her, and Hetal — wanting to explore a sport relatively unknown in India — began sumo wrestling in 2007.

She has since traveled to Estonia, Taiwan and Poland representing India in global sumo competitions. At the recent Sumo World Championships in Warsaw, she placed 5th in the women’s middleweight category. In a video of the competition on her camera, Hetal stands in a small ring wearing a black top, stretch pants and a large white belt, called a mawashi.

Hetal does not try to gain weight, and she does not take any dietary supplements. She said she eats whatever her mother cooks for the family, which tends to be traditional Indian dishes like rice, dal, vegetables or dosas. The family practices strict vegetarianism and abstains from eating meat or egg products. She allows herself the occasional junk food, like a McAloo Tikki veggie burger from McDonald’s.

“I don’t need to eat to build strength in me,” Hetal said. Like all serious athletes, Hetal has a strict practice regimen — four hours a day of cardio and technique exercises.

But unlike other athletes, Hetal has no teammates or fellow female sumo wrestlers with whom to practice. Nor does she have a sumo ring. Instead, she and her younger brother, who also trains in judo and sumo wrestling, head out to a large lawn in South Mumbai and wrestle together.

She said she has tried to recruit female friends to wrestle, but they have all backed out. They say they don't like wearing the big bulky belt, but Hetal says she thinks it's because they have not had the strong family support she has had.

“It doesn’t look good,” Hetal said, “but you’re not playing it to look good.”

Hetal has also faced a problem affording the training and competitions. An Indian Sumo federation forwards the names of athletes to international tournaments, but it does not provide financial assistance or help identifying sponsors, she said. Hetal’s family cannot pay the costs given that her father quit his job to help her and her brother train, and her mother does not work outside the house.

Every time Hetal hears of a new tournament, she and her family must spend three to four months looking for a sponsor. Tournament expenses vary, and this recent trip to Poland, for which they did secure a sponsor, cost about 100,000 rupees ($2,275).

Coming from a community where women her age are busy getting married and beginning families — or at least busy making themselves as eligible as possible — Hetal also faces significant social pressure to quit a sport associated with obese Japanese men.

Hetal’s friends and associates tell her playing sports will wreck her body and her marriage prospects. She needs to be “delicate,” they tell her. Neighbors and relatives tell Hetal’s parents too that they are making a mistake.

“Her age is to get married — why are you letting her do this? You won’t get a right groom for her,” Hetal’s grandmother complains, according to her mother, Alka.

Sudhir and Alka said they do not believe that sumo wrestling and marriage are mutually exclusive. They have been looking for a husband for their daughter for the past year. But they want to find one that will be supportive of Hetal’s passion and will allow her to continue competing nationally and internationally.

Like in most conservative families, it will ultimately be the decision of Hetal’s husband if she continues wrestling, Alka said. But the family is hoping to settle that issue before agreeing to the marriage.

For now, Hetal focuses on her training, finishing her education and teaching self-defense and gymnastic classes to young girls. She hopes to open an academy for girls and women to learn self defense. Sports have given her strength and confidence, and she wants to pass that on to girls like her.

“Mentally you should be confident that you can do anything you want,” Hetal said.

She has already become a role model for the dozens of 6-year-old girls she teaches. When she arrives at the school, the girls run over to her, smother her with hugs and tell her they want to be like her.

Hetal has also made an impact on her grandmother from Rajasthan, who made her first trip to Delhi to attend Hetal’s competition, sitting front and center.

Follow Hanna on Twitter: Hanna_India.