She still has potentially two more bouts to go in Hangzhou but Parveen Hooda got a few things wrapped up on Sunday afternoon itself.
After a clinical display of long range punching and moving, against Uzbekistan’s Sitora Turdibekova, the 23-year-old became the fourth Indian boxer to secure a medal as she made her way into the semifinals of the women’s 57kg category at the Asian Games. By making the last four, Parveen also secured a place in the Paris Olympics.
But what is perhaps most significant to the 23-year-old from Haryana would be the fact that she has fulfilled one side of an agreement. It’s one she made with her father, Lakhpat Singh, just a few months before.
Back then, as she watched her father ravaged by cancer, Parveen was torn between staying by his side and chasing her dream at the Asian Games.
As she wavered, it was Lakhpat who made the decision for her.
“ Tu bas jaake training kar. Ek baar medal ayega, mai khud se thik ho jaunga. (You just go back and train. You bring back a medal, I’ll get better on my own),” he told her.
The bad news had first come on March 24 this year. Parveen was part of the national camp, preparing for the Asian Games, when her plans were thrown out of gear as she heard that her father Lakhpat had been diagnosed with cancer.
“It began as a lump in his throat. We didn’t think too much of it. When we finally got it tested we found out that it was in its third stage,” says Neelam, Parveen’s mother.
The fearful weekly journey from Patiala to Rohtak
Parveen hadn’t been selected in the Indian team just yet and with selection being done on the basis of performance in the camp, her place in the Asian Games squad was far from assured. However she rushed back home from the national camp to do what she could.
“She arranged everything. She got him admitted,” says Neelam.
While as a soldier in the ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police), Parveen could get her father admitted to a hospital in Rohtak, there were the expenses of medicines and chemotherapy. Parveen withdrew the funds from the prize money she had won for winning the Asian Championships gold and the World Championships bronze in 2022.
Every Saturday evening, after the last training session, she would make the six-hour journey from Patiala to Rohtak. Then, on Sunday evening, she would make the six-hour journey back.
When OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest) found out about her predicament, they provided a vehicle to help her make the journey but those were undoubtedly difficult times.
“Her father’s condition was very bad at that time. He wasn’t able to eat or move. He was only taking nutrition from a glucose drip,” says her mother.
As she saw her father’s condition slip each time she visited, Parveen was fearful. “Every time she was afraid when she goes back that the next time her father wouldn’t be there any more,” says Neelam.
Unrelenting family support
Now 53, Parveen’s father had never been in the best of health – when Parveen was young he had dealt with a heart condition. Despite that, he had been one of her biggest supporters.
Women weren’t expected to play sports in Rurki, a village some 15 kilometers from Rohtak in Haryana. Alcoholism and drugs had started to spread. It was only in 2012 that the sarpanch of the village decided to curb these vices by opening a sports academy in which, among other sports, boxing was taught. With not a lot of societal support, few girls attended it.
Parveen, then 11, was one of them. “She saw that other kids were going there and she wanted to go there as well. My husband wasn’t sure because she was so small and he was afraid she would get hurt. But she went quietly by herself,” says Neelam.
Eventually, after the sarpanch Sudhir Hooda spoke to the family, Lakhpat came around. When Parveen won a state medal and then competed nationally within the first year of starting to train, Lakhpat distributed sweets in the neighbourhood.
With just three bigha (approx. 1.8 acres) of land, the family never had much money but Lakhpat made sure Parveen got as much nutrition as he could afford.
“We couldn’t afford fruit and juice but we had a buffalo so we always made sure that Parveen got milk and lassi before she went to train,” says Neelam.
While Parveen is a world and Asian medallist now, equally important in those early days was the family backing she got.
“ Mahaul itna accha nahi tha. Purane soch wale hain gaon mein (The environment wasn’t always great. There are some old-fashioned thinking people in the village), ” says Neelam .
With a strong male guardian standing behind her, Parveen didn’t have to worry too much.
Her career too was going from strength to strength. After a bronze in the women’s lightwelterweight category at the 2022 World Championships and then a gold at the Asian Championships the same year, Parveen was rated as one of Indian boxing’s best prospects for the Paris Olympics.
‘Happy to be known as Parveen’s father’
The Asian Games - which serve as a qualification event for the 2024 Games - were to be a stepping stone to that goal. But as Parveen shuttled back and forth from training to be by her father’s side, her preparations were on the brink.
“At one point she was thinking of giving up the selection but he (Lakhpat) insisted she continue to train. He said he was getting better and that he wanted to see her compete,” says Neelam.
This wasn’t Lakhpat just saying what he thought he wanted Parveen to hear. He’s still weak from his illness but his wife says his face lights up when he sees Parveen box.
“ Jab bhi bout hoti hai, hamesha dekhta hu. Phone ya LED (TV) pe dhundta hu (When she has a bout, I will always make it a point to watch),” he says in a soft voice.
“ Bohot khushi hoti hai usko dekh ke. Thoda dar bhi lagta hai jab woh mukke chalte hain. Gam me sab mujhe Parveen ke papa jaise jante hain. Accha lagta hai. (I feel a lot of happiness when I see her box so well. But it is a little scary when the punches are thrown. In the village people know me as Parveen’s father. It makes me happy), ” says Lakhpat.
He’s well aware of the scale of her achievement. “ Ab bronze pakka hai. Aur pata hai ki Olympics ka quota bhi mil gaya (I know that the bronze is assured and I also know that she has qualified for the Olympics as well),” he says.
And while he’s glad Parveen has come as far as she has, he is hopeful she goes further still.
“It’s a very big thing to qualify for the Olympics. I want to see her win a medal at the Olympics now,” he says.
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