Car sold, pockets empty, judoka Shushila fights to live Tokyo Olympics dream

Judoka Shushila Devi has gone to extreme lengths, which have often wiped her bank account clean, to realise her dream of qualifying for the Olympics.

Shushila Devi and coach Jiwan Sharma leave for the Tokyo Olympics from New Delhi on Saturday. - SAI MEDIA

Shushila Devi will be India’s lone judoka at the Tokyo Olympics and the nation’s sixth representative at the Games since the turn of the century. The Manipuri native has gone to extreme lengths, which have often wiped her bank account clean, to realise her dream of qualifying for the Olympics.

“I don't have any money right now. Poora khali pada hai (empty purse)," she says and laughs. "Whatever I have, I have put everything into judo,” she says, acknowledging the reality that if you choose a sport that doesn’t grab eyeballs or isn’t considered mainstream, then you may be forced to fend for yourself.

Copycat turned judoka

Judo runs in the family. Shushila’s uncle Dinik Singh, an international player-turned-coach, inspired her brother Shilakshi Singh to take up the sport. As a child, Shushila would follow Shilakshi all around. “Wherever I went, she would tag along. She would always follow me around,” says Shilakshi, now employed with the Border Security Force.

So when Shilakshi enrolled in judo classes at the nearby Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal, it was little surprise that Shushila would be his plus one. Shilakshi would cycle the two of them nearly 10km every day, with Shushila sitting at the back and clinging on to him.

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“There was no stopping her once she set her mind on something. She was always tough and would roam around and play with us boys in the village. She would sport short hair and would always wear boys clothes,” he recalls.

Shushila’s mental toughness took her a long way. After impressing at the SAI centre, she progressed to the National Centre of Excellence in Patiala. It was here that she opened up to the possibility of sport as a career.

“At that time I never dreamt that I would be an Olympian or play at an international level. I just liked the sport. Patiala had top athletes from various disciplines and I used to see how they trained and practised. I used to look up to the likes of Mary Kom and the top judokas. I used to watch their practice sessions chhup chhup ke (quietly, without them noticing) and try to copy them," she says. The patchy network of the video call - she’s on her way back from a practice session - does not take the sheen away from the 26-year-old’s smile.

'Bade bade sapne'

Her career took off at Patiala after coach Jiwan Sharma took her under his wings. “What I first noticed about her was that her willpower was very strong - she never gives up. She was never scared to lose and knew how to digest a defeat,” says the Dronacharya Awardee.

She distinctly remembers Jiwan talking about global competitions and the Olympics and how she innocuously asked him, “Aap mujhe itne bade bade sapne kyun dikha rahe ho (why are you showing me such big dreams)?"

The Manipuri judoka, who competes in the 48kg category, went on to win all the national level meets and clinched bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Jiwan moved to JSW Sports’ Inspire Institute of Sport and Shushila soon joined its roster. She won bronze at the 2015 Junior Asian Championships.

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Despite her mental tenacity, there came a time when she considered quitting the sport in 2018. A hamstring injury sidelined her for nearly seven months and she subsequently lost in the Asian Games trials. “I was shattered. I felt my judo career was over. The goal was to qualify for the Asian Games and use that as a platform to prepare for the Olympics. I was heartbroken and went back home for three months to take a break,” she says.

The comeback

Jiwan, who had already produced four Olympians, would call Shushila regularly to get her to return to the mat. 

“Jiwan sir kept motivating me. He kept telling me not to give up and that more events were coming up and how we could fix the flaws in my game and make a strong comeback. That's what got me back to the game. I am here because of him,” says Shushila.

She made a successful comeback and won successive silver medals at the Hong Kong Open in 2018 and 2019. But her path to the Olympics was to be riddled with more obstacles. Running out of money, she was forced to sell her Maruti Suzuki Alto car to fund her competition expenses.

Shilakshi says, “She was forced to use her own money to travel. The federation sends the judokas only for top events like the World Championships and Asian Championships, but they don’t send athletes to other qualifying events such as Grand Prix and Grand Slams. She took many loans and even sold her car to fund her trips. Judo also does not have many sponsors because we have never won an Olympic medal. Each tour would cost at least 50,000 rupees."

Shushila adds, “I have put everything into judo, I have nothing left for now.”

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Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought Shushila's preparations to an abrupt halt before she found a way to keep training. With gyms and training centres shut, she decided to set up a judo arena at home. “I borrowed mats from my childhood coach and set them up in my room. I also convinced a young judoka to train with me throughout. We used to wake up in the wee hours of the morning to go on runs before the others woke up so that we could stay fit. It was a real challenge to stay at home, to find a way to practice and keep myself fit. I can't tell you the lengths I have gone to remain fit,” she says.

Once some sense of normalcy resumed, Shushila continued her quest for an Olympic berth but was dealt another unfortunate twist. The entire Indian team was barred from competing at the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in April after a team member tested positive for coronavirus. “I was certain of bagging a medal there - if not gold then the silver medal for sure. If I had made the final then I would have directly qualified for the Olympics.”

After a nervy few weeks, she went on to seal her spot at the Games on June 25 through the continental quota. She had amassed 989 points and was ranked seventh in the Asian list for a quota. Asia has 10 continental quota slots. She then trained in Chateau Gontier in France before returning to India for a week ahead of the Olympics.

Shushila, who is an old soul when it comes to music, enjoys listening to and humming old-school Hindi songs. This means enduring some leg-pulling from teammates. She’s quick to add she prefers romantic songs and not “sad songs.”

Grounded expectations

Coach Jiwan says the expectations are aplenty but the reality is far from it. “We as a nation are struggling just to qualify, we need to turn the focus on medals too. If the judokas compete in all the qualifying competitions, then we can do well. We are polishing her skills now but we cannot do wonders in one month. We found out just about a month ago that she has qualified. The expectations are always high but we also have to be realistic - events like the World Championships and Olympics are not easy. Her preparation is great and she can pull off a surprise,” he says.

Shushila, though, is unfazed by the pressure. “I am not nervous because I have already faced most of the competitors in earlier competitions. I am determined to give it my best shot,” says India’s top-ranked judoka.

Shushila will be in action in the 48kg category when Judo begins at the Tokyo Olympics on July 24.

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