Lonely, talented, desperate: India's only pro female sumo wrestler

Lonely, talented, desperate: India's only pro female sumo wrestler

Looking for somewhere to practice, some sponsors and some recognition. Call me now!

Hetal DaveOn a Sunday afternoon at Oval Maidan amidst boys swinging cricket bats, India's only female sumo wrestler warms up for her practice session.

Hetal Dave, a 170-centimeter, 23-year-old Brahmin Marwari seems far from the image of an obese sumo wrestler but she is strong, well-built and extremely focused.

In between push-up rounds at Oval Maidan she explains that sumo wrestling is not just about weight.

"It's a game of concentration and every fraction of a second matters," says Dave.

With no professional sumo ring to practice in, a quiet corner of the Oval is her daily haunt, where she hones her skills as a pro wrestler.

"It's strange sometimes to practice here, as people stop, stand and just stare," she says. 

Dave's interest in sumo stems from judo, which she's been practicing since the age of six when her father enrolled her in classes.

She became known in Mumbai's martial arts scene and started standing in as a mock partner for male sumo wrestlers.

Some think I'm talking about Tata Sumo, others just don't care— Hetal Dave

"Out of 100 games I'd win 60 -- that gave me the confidence to pursue sumo wrestling as a professional," Dave says.

It all sounds very cool and "Million Dollar Baby" except when you realize what a lonely professional life it is, practicing an ancient sport from another country, that's traditionally meant for men.

The two main men in Dave's life are brother, Akshay, her sparring partner and an aspiring pro sumo wrestler himself. And her coach Cawas Billimoria, who trains her for international competitions but can't always come along for lack of funds.

Dave has traveled to Estonia, Taiwan and Poland representing India in global sumo competitions and placed fifth in the women’s middleweight category at the 2009 World Games in Taiwan.

"While playing in international tournaments you need someone to guide you -- this is very important for a player and having no one to do that is a big drawback for me," she says as she proudly unfurls an eight-kilo mawashi belt that sumo wrestlers wear while in training or competition.

"The mawashi belt is very dear to any sumo wrestler," she says. "I recently got this belt from my coach, but for my first international tournament I had to borrow one."

Hetal DaveDonning the traditional mawashi belt takes time and patience.

Combat in and out of the ring

Her struggle starts on home ground. Finding people to sponsor her tournaments abroad isn't easy. 

There is a sumo federation in India which oversees player participation in international tournaments, but stops short of financial help.

"Arranging finances for air tickets and other expenses is a deciding factor and that money is hard to come by," says Dave.

Plus sumo is a not an officially recognized Olympic sport, which ensures it barely receives any attention from the government.

The hunt for sponsors takes Dave from door to door, and brings her face-to-face with people very unfamiliar with sumo as a sport.

"They confuse it with the Tata Sumo car, and others just don't care," she says.  

"It is frustrating sometimes but I hope I am setting a trend for more girls to join in and make this sport more popular here."

On the way back to Dave's house, while walking through the Fort area, we talk about Mumbai and her life outside wrestling.

"Mumbai is an addictive city and home for me," Dave says. And, after thinking a while, she confesses shyly to liking Bollywood actor Salman Khan.

But we can't keep wrestling out of our conversation for long.

"I would love to go to Japan and play a match," she muses.

With supportive parents despite her conservative Brahmin Marwari background, a brother for a combat partner and a "great coach" Hetal Dave knows she has, at least, a fighting chance. 

Hetal DaveDave dreams of sumo wrestling in Japan.