Nikhat Zareen had been out of form for a year due to shoulder injury and surgery, so not many people had expectations of any big win when she represented India for the 51 kg boxing category at the 56th Belgrade International Tournament in April this year. But – ever the obstinate rebel – she was determined to prove them wrong.
So she went ahead and won gold.
There was always something different about Nikhat. Even while she was a young girl in the small town of Nizamabad in Telangana, she was a bit of a tomboy, comfortable in the company of her male peers. Since the movement of girls was restricted, Nikhat adopted boys’ clothing and kept her hair short. Curious and fearless, she wanted to explore the world.
Nikhat’s father – an avid sportsperson himself – had never encouraged his four daughters to take up sports. He himself had had to give up his passion in order to raise a family and he felt it was not a viable career, so he pushed them toward academics instead.
But when Nikhat was 11, she participated in her school’s sports day event at a time where her dad was posted in Saudi Arabia, and managed to beat much older girls. It was her first taste of sporting victory.
She got involved in her school athletics, and though her father was reluctant at first, he couldn’t help feeling proud when she won laurels. Then one day, when she was 13, she happened to notice that the district’s boxing centre had no girls.
“I found it odd,” recalls Nikhat, now 21. “Why are girls considered weak?” The adolescent took it up as a challenge, and began training. Eventually, it was time to spar with her male peers.
“I lost my first game and came home with a black eye and a bleeding nose,” she laughs in retrospect. “But I was stubborn. I didn’t cry. I was furious.” Upon seeing her daughter’s face, Nikhat’s mother began crying: “We didn’t put you in boxing so that you spoil your face! Who will marry you?” the older woman wailed.
The teenager stuck her chin out, defiantly: “Once I am a success, there will be a line of grooms waiting for me.”
Nikhat’s first big win happened in 2010 at the sub-junior national championships. “I prepared a lot for it,” she narrates, adding that, as the only girl participating from her district stadium, her coaches were more invested in her as her victory would encourage more girls to come forward.
“Those were long, tiring days. I had school, plus training, plus homework. My body was always tired,” she recalls.
Despite facing a more experienced player from Manipur in the finals, Nikhat struck gold and was award the best boxer of the match. The tournament spurred her international dreams.
In 2011, she travelled to Turkey to participate in the Junior World Championships. In her first round, she defeated a much stronger, more experienced Russian opponent with a knockout. Then she won the semi-finals against Ukraine, and finally the finals against the home country Turkey.
“It was such a proud moment for me when the referee raised my hand and our national anthem played. I wanted to cry,” she recalls. She was 15 years old.
Nikhat was a national celebrity after her return – her school friends’ attitude towards her changed considerably, and her photos frequently appeared in newspapers. She completed her Bachelor’s in public administration, political science and psychology, while continuing to win matches everywhere she went – from Assam to Bulgaria and Serbia.
She was one of three boxers picked for JSW’s Sports Excellence Program, and – when she dislocated her shoulder in 2017 – the company went all out to get her the best treatment, physiotherapy and even brought down global players to train with her and keep up her competitive spirit and fighting skills.
But even so, many months after her surgery and recuperation, there were many in the field who doubted if Nikhat would ever get her mojo back.
Her Belgrade win this year shut all her critics up, of course.
She’s also won over naysayers at home. These days, when Nikhat comes home with a black eye, her mom says, nonchalantly, “Go put some ice.”
First published in the June 2018 issue of eShe magazine