Eat, pray, wrestle

India’s only woman sumo wrestler Hetal Dave’s bulking up to take on the world,  says Sarbani Sen

  • Published 15.05.16

Hetal Dave doesn’t stand out amongst the hundreds of other joggers, Yoga practitioners and cricket-playing teenagers who turn up at South Mumbai’s Oval Maidan every morning.

But you can easily figure out that the burly young lady’s very different when you see her sparring with her brother Akshay, who says he’s “her coach and sometimes her punching bag”.

Dave’s India’s only female sumo wrestler and she keeps India’s flag flying in tournaments around the world grappling with opponents who are often much bulkier than her.

The 27-year-old doesn’t fit the traditional image of a sumo wrestler. But you look at her differently when she straps on the mawashi, the huge belt round the waist, worn during practice sessions by sumo wrestlers. “It weighs around 7kg and not everybody can wear it,” says Dave.

Dave is 5ft-6in tall and weighs 80kg. But since she’s a strict vegetarian she hasn’t gone on a high-protein diet like other athletes attempting to get into peak physical condition. “Being a sumo wrestler doesn’t mean you have to be obese. One’s aim is to practice hard and pin down the opponent in the ring,” she insists.

Nevertheless, she did have to put on 10kg extra as she wanted to get into the middleweight category. “Earlier I was 69 kg. But I’ve had to put on weight for the sport,” she says.

Currently, Dave’s training hard for the World Championship in Mongolia in June where she’s hoping to pick up laurels for the country. She’s taken part in tournaments including the World Games, Taipei, and other tournaments like the World Championship 2010 in Poland and the Asian Championships in Taiwan in 2012.

Being the only Indian at these events can be a lonely affair. Dave first represented India in the World Championships, in Rakvere, Estonia, in 2008 when she was only 19. There were 15 female sumo wrestlers in her category but she fared creditably. “Finishing in the top eight of the championship was an achievement,” she says.

Before any tournament, Dave practices for five hours every morning. “I stick to muscle stretching exercises and do a lot of weight-lifting and practicing with my brother and others.”

 “Sumo’s all about shuffling the body with hand and foot and finally overpowering your opponent,” she says, adding: “The rules are very simple. Except for your legs, the other body parts shouldn’t touch the ground. You should pin your opponent down or make her step out of the ring or dohyo as it’s called.”

It was her interest in martial arts that drew Dave to sumo wrestling. She started learning judo at the age of five and when most of her peers were “chilling out”, she’d practice with other judokas. She also spent hours watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan martial art movies for inspiration.

But she fell in love with sumo wrestling after watching wrestlers practice at Mumbai’s Ippon Judo Academy.

Hetal Dave’s brother Akshay, is an amateur sumo wrestler and says he’s “her coach and occasionally her punching bag”

One day, she overheard her coach Cawas Billimoria, who’s a former India judo champion and professional sumo trainer, talking about sumo wrestling for women. “I knew that was my future,” she says.

“The biggest hurdle was practicing the sport with men. With no girls around, I had to wrestle with men,” she says.

It’s not tough to understand why women don’t take up sumo wrestling. “Girls feel they need to put on lots of weight to be a professional sumo wrestler. But that isn’t always the case. It’s more a mental game,” says Billimoria.

In fact, sumo wrestling is very much a niche sport even for men. There are only around 30 men trying their hand at it in India says Yatish Bangera, secretary, Sumo Federation of India.  “We’re trying to get more girls to join the sport,” he adds.

Sumo wrestling is Japan’s national sport and it has gained popularity in countries like China, the US and Germany. Unlike professional male sumo wrestling which, is freestyle and has no separate weight categories, championships held across the world have weight categories.

You might say that Dave’s an unlikely candidate to be India’s only women sumo wrestler. She’s from a conservative Brahmin family but they’ve been very supportive. “She’s a very strong-minded girl and we know the challenges she faces every day. I’m proud that my daughter is chasing her dream,” says her father Sudhir Dave.

Dave’s chalking out a course for the future. A graduate from the HR College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai,  she and a college mate have started the Mentor Sports Academy in South Mumbai. For now, Dave’s teaching women judo. But she hopes to take up sumo wrestling coaching if more women show interest.

She has travelled to Japan to take part in tournaments but such trips can be expensive. “It’s difficult to survive without sponsors,” she says.

“For sports like hockey or kabaddi, companies come forward to sponsor a whole team, but people are reluctant to help in an individual game,” she says.

Despite all the hurdles, her enthusiasm for the sport hasn’t been dimmed. “I will keep working and fighting,” she says. And her dream is to be the world’s top-ranked wrestler in her category.

Photographs by Gajanan Dudhalkar