Sarita Devi: 'Dingko sir inspired me to take up boxing'

Asian Games medallist Sarita Devi remembers India's boxing great Dingko Singh who passed away on Thursday after a prolonged illness.

Sarita Devi recounts 'incredible teacher' Dingko Singh's dedication to the sport and how he inspired generations to take up boxing.   -  PTI

Sarita Devi was in her teens when she met Dingko Singh for the first time. The star pugilist had just returned from Bangkok after clinching a gold medal in the 1998 Asian Games and was in Thoubal - a village in Manipur - to attend a felicitation ceremony.

A young Sarita, who by then had started training in taekwondo, was one of the many teenagers who had gathered near the stage to catch a glimpse of Dingko - who over the years, inspired generations to take up boxing.

“My sister had made a greeting card for Dingko sir and I waited in one corner to hand him that. Back in those days, we did not have money to buy fancy cards, so we made it at home,” Sarita tells Sportstar.

READ: Former India boxer Dingko Singh passes away

Standing in the crowd, the youngster realised that she wanted to take up boxing and represent the country someday. “Back then, we had no idea what it takes to perform at the highest level, but we had someone to look up to. Dingko sir’s feats at the Asian Games gave us confidence and I fell in love with boxing soon,” she says.

Even though she had made up her mind, it was not easy to walk in the right direction. She had lost her father and her mother was struggling to make ends meet. But then, the strong-willed Sarita ensured that she chased her dreams.

“I knew I had to become a boxer and there was no looking back,” Sarita says.

In 1999, she featured in a couple of exhibition bouts in the National Games and slowly paved her way to the Indian team. “Even though we were not in touch in between, I always considered Dingko sir as my idol and I would approach every situation thinking how he would handle them.”

In 2003-04 during a programme in Mumbai, Sarita once again met Dingko and the two had a long chat about how to improve the game. “It was literally a fan girl moment for me. I was meeting my idol after so many years, and by then, I had already made it to the national team, but the moment I met him, it brought back so many memories,” Sarita says.

“I not only picked his brains, but also clicked a picture with him. Whatever I have done today, the credit goes to him. Had he not inspired me in 1998, I would not have even taken up the sport.”

While the two kept in touch, they grew close in 2014 when Dingko trained Sarita for a couple of months in Mumbai, ahead of the Rio Olympics. By then, she had already won six medals in Asian Championships and also brought laurels for the country in the Incheon Asian Games, but in those two months, Sarita’s perception about the sport changed.

“That was the first time I had the opportunity of training under him and it was an incredible experience. We would have long sessions and he would guide me on small things and that eventually helped me improve the game,” Sarita, who later went on to win bronze medals at the Asian Championships in 2017 and 2019, says.

“He would focus on the minute details and that’s when I realised why he was such a good boxer. He was an incredible teacher and in those months, we developed a very good rapport.”

In 2017 when Dingko was diagnosed with liver cancer, he had to sell his house in Imphal to raise money for the treatment in Delhi. That was the toughest phase of his life. “But even then, he never lost hope. I remember meeting him at the hospital in Delhi and the first thing he asked me was about my training. That was his dedication to the sport. He was a real fighter,” Sarita says.

Recovering from cancer, Dingko slowly returned to coaching, but a relapse and bouts of jaundice and COVID-19 again led to the deterioration of his health.

“After he recovered from COVID-19 last year, we met him at his home and he was very excited about the future of my boxing academy. He had plans for youngsters and always encouraged them…”

On Thursday morning, as the news of his demise came in, Sarita and her husband Thoiba rushed to Dingko’s home. “It is yet to sink in that Dingko sir is no longer with us. He not only won medals for the country, but also inspired so many of us,” an emotional Sarita says. “His death is a huge loss for Indian boxing.”

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