South Asia’s Crazy for This Intense Contact Sport — She’s Its Trailblazing Star
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because she’s stacking up medals in a contact sport.
Kabaddi, an ancient South Asian game that’s a bruising mix of red rover and wrestling, had been written off in India as a relic, a pastime for rural villagers to play on dusty fields. But this native Indian sport recently enjoyed a comeback as subcontinental fans developed an interest in sports other than colonial cricket. Then, in 2014, everything changed with the launch of Pro Kabaddi, endowing the sport with the high-profile glitz of a televised professional league that features Bollywood stars among the team owners.
Today, Pro Mamtha Poojary is watched by hundreds of millions of fans all over the world, who have made household names of players like Anup Kumar and Rahul Chaudhuri. But until last year, only men played the game professionally. In 2016, the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge switched it up by introducing the women’s version of the sport. Rapt fans watched the Storm Queens and Fire Birds battle it out in the tournament final, culminating in a 24-23 win for the Storm Queens, whose star player Mamtha Poojary dove, shimmied, raided and tagged her way into history. Virtually overnight, she went from unknown amateur athlete to national icon. And while many viewers figured the demure, soft-spoken Poojary, 30, was an instant sensation, her success is the product of 10 years of training for what many had dismissed as a dying sport, with the odds stacked against her due to gender and class.
In conservative, rural areas, girls are rarely allowed to look to sports as a career, or to consider a career at all.
“I grew up in a rural place, a small village in the south of India,” says Poojary from the home she shares with her husband, Abishek. “My parents were farmers. Our family sold milk. Every morning, I would wake up at 5 a.m. and travel a few kilometers to tend to the cows, and then seven more kilometers back through jungle roads to school. I had to run to make it on time!” In school, she excelled at volleyball and track but decided to try kabaddi when the team was looking for an extra player. Her talent was obvious to anyone watching, but Poojary decided to keep it a secret from her parents, afraid they’d disapprove of the rough game. “They thought I would get hurt and then nobody would want to marry me,” she says, laughing. “And they didn’t like that I was wearing shorts in public.”
In India, most notable female athletes come from affluent backgrounds and play individual, noncontact sports like tennis and badminton. In conservative, rural areas, girls are rarely allowed to look to sports as a career, or to consider a career at all. “There’s a conflict between modernization and tradition,” says Sital Kalantry, a law professor at Cornell University and an expert on women’s rights. “In small towns and villages like where Mamtha’s from, it’s more difficult for women to get opportunities for education and employment.… Girls are expected to get married at a young age and keep the home.”
Returning home one evening from a particularly fierce kabaddi match, the teenage Poojary had her cover blown when her parents saw her injuries. Aghast, they forbade her from playing again, but when coaches from the local university offered free tuition and board to Poojary in exchange for her playing kabaddi for the school, her parents relented. Seeing it as a shot at a different kind of life for their daughter — one that could lead to a stable job after she graduated — they gave their blessing.
Once in college, the medals started stacking up for Poojary, and they haven’t stopped. In 2006, when she was just 18, she was a member of the championship Indian team at the South Asian Games. By 2010, she was captain of the women’s national team, which she has led during an unprecedented period of dominance in the sport that extends to present day (the team is still No. 1 in the world). To date, Poojary has won 11 gold medals — including the first-ever Women’s Kabaddi World Cup, in 2012. “After that, nobody objected to girls playing kabaddi in the village where I’m from,” she says with a smile.
Sunil Taneja, a play-by-play commentator for ESPN India, has had a mat-side seat for the kabaddi revolution in India. “Mamtha’s talent is exceptional,” he says. “She is the finest player in the landscape of women’s kabaddi. When you see a player from a humble background go on to become captain of India and a national hero, it encourages a whole generation of girls.” What’s more, Poojary is a testament to hard-won gains for women in a rapidly modernizing India, while still upholding the values of family and modesty that underpin conservative Indian tradition. “Players like Mamtha have had a very, very positive effect,” Taneja says. “The talent is there, and the times are changing.”
Changing, yes, but for now, there’s no assurance that the women’s pro league will continue, so Poojary is playing once again for the national team. While she waits for the Women’s Kabaddi Challenge to become an annual event — and for kabbadi to be included in the Olympics — she talks about starting a family and opening a sports academy for young athletes. What’s certain, though, is that she’ll stay in the village where she grew up, visiting relatives and old friends on the dirt roads where she once ran.