Sneha, Ritu put Himachal on the women’s boxing map

With their gold medals in their hands, both Sneha and Ritu walked to the spectators’ arena before they met world championship bronze medalist Manisha Moun. The Haryana boxer had come to cheer for her state’s boxing contingent, which won a combined total of ten gold medals on the last day of the Khelo India Youth Games at Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex, and the Khelo India champions from Himachal Pradesh wanted to show their medals to Moun.

Both belong to Sangla, a town in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh around 250 kms from the capital Shimla and the girls would click selfies with Haryana boxers before heading to the dining hall.

“While Haryana is known for producing Olympic medalist and international medalist boxers, people ask us often that “Himachal mein bhi boxing hoti hai? And when we tell them that we are from Sangla in Kinnaur district, they wonder even more. To become champions here where Haryana ruled the ring is special for both of us and we know we will get the traditional tribal garlands when we reach our home in Sangla on our return,” shares Sneha who claimed the gold medal in the girls’ welter-weight (66 kg) final on Monday.

Daughter of a teacher, Sneha first tried her hands at boxing on the insistence of English teacher Shyam Rattan Negi, who also acts as the Government High School’s basic boxing coach in Sangla. With her father Manoj Kumar being posted in Assam as a teacher, Sneha would often ask her friends or relatives to get her new boxing gloves from Shimla or Chandigarh. With some buses taking a full day from Sangla to Chandigarh, it was a hard task for the youngsters to get basic boxing gear.

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“At most of the government schools, kids are taught boxing as well as other martial arts in an effort to keep them fit. While there is less sports infrastructure, the tribal kids want to learn sports, be it boxing or any other sport. It was very difficult initially. But later some hydro power companies would sponsor the equipment. As basic coach, the main challenge was to keep kids motivated and they would come to school to train even during snowfall. It’s a huge achievement for Sangla with two girls winning the Khelo India medals and I hope it will inspire more girls,” said Negi.

Sneha won her medal in the form of a silver medal in junior nationals in Telangana before she won the silver in light welterweight (63kg) in Boxam Tournament in Spain last year. Sneha would also become the Asian Youth Champion in welterweight (66kg) in Dubai last year and with the weight being an Olympic category now, will aim to become the second Himachal boxer in recent years to represent India in Olympics after Ashish Kumar qualified for Tokyo Olympics last year.

Another English teacher encourages boxers

Ritu, whose father owns an apple farm at Sangla, too started boxing at the Government Middle School under another English teacher Opinder Negi, who too acts as basic boxing coach. The youngster won the bronze medal in the 2018 junior nationals at Guwahati before a bronze at youth nationals in Sonepat last year. The fly-weight (52 kg) boxer scored a win over Neeru Khatri of Haryana to claim the gold medal on Monday.

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“I was recruited as a sports quota in the middle school and I started boxing training in the school in 2012. While the boxing gloves were a bit costly, we also started donation drives from parents of the kids in the villages or using cycling tubes and tyres in walls apart from local scrap-made gym equipment to train kids. I would teach them boxing prior to the school hours or after school hours but to see these kids win medals is my reward. Currently, I train more than 80 kids and 15-20 players are national level boxers and three international boxers including Sneha, Vinakshi and Deepika,” said Opinder Negi, coach of Ritu and English and Social Sciences teacher at Government Middle School, Sangla.

“Most people know Sangla due to apple farming or as a tourist destination. But we want Sangla to be known for our boxing too. Sometimes, my father would tell the drivers of apple trucks to get my boxing gear from Chandigarh or Jalandhar from their return. And we had to train with old boxing gear. In winters, we would train with a family member holding the punching pad or sparring pad as it would get too cold outside. I hope I can be part of the Indian camp soon as I want to meet my idol Mary Kom someday,” says Ritu.

Cuban coach BI Fernandez, who happens to be the only foreign coach to be conferred with Dronacharya award, has been training Sneha at PIS, Mohali and rates the Himachal youngsters highly. “When Sneha came to train under me three years ago, she only relied on straight punches. With time, we worked on her trying body punches as well as combinations. In welterweight, speed with power is the key and she needs to add a bit of speed as well as power in the coming years,” says Fernandez.

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