Birmingham Commonwealth Games silver medallist Tulika Maan was the favourite in the women's +78kg category at the National Games. And it showed in her performance at the judo hall in Gandhinagar’s Mahatma Mandir Expo center. Maan competed in four matches, winning gold by beating Punjab’s Kanwar Preet Kaur by ippon in the final.
The only thing that came between Maan and her gold was perhaps her own left knee. “After the weigh-ins yesterday (Thursday), I slipped and fell on that (left) knee. The pain was really bad. It was so intense that I didn’t get much sleep at night. I finally slept at 4.30 or 5am,” she says.
Over the last few months, the 24-year-old has been battling a serious injury to that joint. Trouble started in training prior to the Commonwealth Games, and it aggravated, Maan says, during a bout in Birmingham. When she left after the Games to compete at the Asian Championships in Kazakhstan, the problem got worse.
“There are three ligaments in the knee – ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), MCL (medial cruciate ligament) and meniscus – and all three are damaged. The doctor has said I need to get surgery as soon as possible. I’m competing right now, but surgery is inevitable,” she says.
Maan is delaying the surgery because she knows 2024 Paris Olympic qualification period has already begun. “ Right now, we have the qualification period for the Olympics, so I don’t want to do it. And next year is the Asian Games. If I get surgery now, it will take another five months to recover; that will be too late. I will miss too many competitions. I will try and control it as much as I can. But after the Olympics, I will have no option but to get the surgery,” she says.
So, Maan has no option but to endure the pain and get on with her judo. At the National Games, she came with her left knee heavily taped up with two separate layers of strapping. Even that wasn't enough, as her opponent in the semifinal round – Nutan Chauhan of Haryana – tried to trip her. “I kept getting hit in the knee. It hurt a lot, but I had to try and not show any pain. I had done a lot of wrapping and used a lot of Volini (pain relieving spray), so I was able to control it somewhat,” she says.
Even though she won the tournament, Maan doesn’t have time to nurse her wound. Early Saturday morning, she flew to Tashkent for the World Championships, which began on Thursday. Maan qualified for the Worlds on the basis of her ranking (she’s currently World number 91). Maan was one of only two Indians who qualified for the Worlds – Sunibala Devi in the women’s 63kg category is the other. Sunibala – who also won gold on Friday – had to skip the Worlds in order to compete in Gandhinagar. Maans’ competition in Tashkent begins only on the 11th, allowing her to reach just in time.
Maan isn’t thinking too much about the competition; instead she’s already training her sights on the 2023 season. The year will be challenging, not the least, because of her injury. Maan also wants to switch from the current +78kg open weight category to the 78kg category.
Maan, who currently has a pre-competition weight of around 87kg, says her current weight division is unfavourable for her and might even have caused her injury. “I will compete in the worlds in the over 78kg category, but after that I will compete in the 78kg category. I have decided to shift because my strength is much less compared to the other judokas in my weight category. It’s the open weight category, so many of my competitors are much heavier than me. Some of them are 130kg (her lightest opponent at the CWG was Sarah Addlington of Wales, who weighed 101kg). There is a big difference in weight. They have more weight and power as a result. I injured my knee further at the CWG because of this,” she says.
More than her knee injury, the cutting of weight is worrying Maan right now. “When I am coming down a weight category, the biggest challenge is going to be my diet; I can’t control my cravings. I was able to cut it down for a bit, but now it’s started again. The food I can’t stop eating is french fries. My last big meal was after the Asian Championships when I went to Shimla. I went straight to a Dominos (pizza outlet) and had a pizza but had also bought fries from the F for Fries next to it. Fries are my favourite. I can eat them anytime. But I have to find a way to stop. I have to stop,” she says.
“My target is to do well in the Olympic qualifiers. We have the University Games and the Asian Games. The Asian Games is my main target for next year. The same girls who take part at the University Games will come to the Asian Games. After that we have the Olympics. I really want to qualify for that,” she says.
These are ambitious targets, and there’s no option but to put the potential aggravation of her injury behind her. “This is not the best situation. If I focus too much on this, I won’t be able to focus on my preparation. If I can do serious rehabilitation for a month, I hope it won’t affect me too much for a year. But I know that surgery is inevitable,” she admits.