In the gritty streets of Katwaria Sarai, South Delhi, where determination meets adversity, 31-year-old Shalakha Sansanwal emerges as a lone beacon of hope. A silver medallist in the 70kg category at the recently concluded seventh Elite Women’s National Boxing Championships, she defies conventions and challenges the status quo with her unwavering commitment to the sport.
Her introduction to the world of combat sports was unconventional, beginning at the age of 26 when she stumbled upon kickboxing during a fitness regimen. From being technically weak in her first year to clinching three national medals in the last five years, her meteoric rise exemplifies sheer determination and individual brilliance.
Sansanwal’s unconventional entry into combat sports
Shalakha’s journey in the sporting world began at 26 in 2018 by chance ‘I was more inclined towards academics,’ she recollected. ‘I struggled with weight issues, and it was my friends who suggested I join a local gym to maintain a healthy lifestyle.’
During her fitness training, she came across a kickboxing event and later switched to combat sports i.e. boxing.
‘In my initial foray into boxing, my physical strength proved to be my saving grace, offering a distinct advantage. However, as I stepped into the ring during my first year, I couldn’t help but acknowledge the deficiency in my technical skills. Reflecting on those early experiences, it became evident that my journey was poised at a critical juncture. Despite grappling with these initial challenges, my inherent strength served as a catalyst for transformation, propelling me forward. This marked the genesis of a remarkable journey within the realm of boxing, where the fusion of raw physical prowess and a fervent desire to learn became the driving forces behind my evolution. Each obstacle encountered in those formative days became a stepping stone, laying the foundation for a resilient and determined pursuit of excellence in the world of pugilism,’ she added.
She has triumphed with sheer determination and individual brilliance, securing three national medals in the past five years. Her international debut took place in 2021, ‘I could showcase my talent at the national level due to support from family and friends, they supported my choice to pursue combat sports I consider myself lucky’ she adds.
At 31, the resilient pugilist stood as Delhi’s sole medallist in the recent Elite Women’s National Boxing Championships, securing a well-deserved silver. Amidst fierce competition, her prowess in the ring shone brightly, marking a solitary triumph for the capital city. The silver medal not only attested to her skill and dedication but also emphasised the scarcity of recognition for women boxers in Delhi.
‘I was surprised that the coaches in the camp only backed players who were ranked first and second in their respective weight categories. Despite holding the fourth rank in my weight, I didn’t receive much attention in the camp, and it was very discouraging. The coaches want readymade champions to earn instant fame,’ she added. ‘No one wanted to work on the greenhorn.’
Undeterred by the odds stacked against her, she persevered with unwavering determination, stating, ‘I had my goals. I aspired to enhance my skills and deliver standout performances inside the ring. The burning desire to excel drove me to work tirelessly, although achieving gold at the national level remained elusive.’
Sansanwal’s quest for excellence continued with her securing a second bronze at the national championships in 2021, this time in the 75kg category. Despite her consistent success, the experience at the subsequent national camp differed.
Triumphs and international debut
‘I was again shortlisted for the national camp, but this time, the dynamics were different,’ she recounted. The seasoned boxer didn’t delve into specifics, but the shift in experience hinted at the unpredictable and often challenging journey she faces in her pursuit of boxing glory.
‘I was given the chance to compete at the international level’. Since she was ranked fourth in her weight category, she was accordingly given a chance to compete at the international level. The top two ranked boxers, she said, were given more quality competitions ‘I was sent to compete in an invitational boxing tournament in Kazakhstan. It was a good experience. But I lost in the quarter-finals against boxers from the host team as I wasn’t technically good,’ she added.
The following year brought its own set of challenges as Sansanwal unfortunately, missed the podium at the 2022 national competition, bowing out in the pre-quarters. Undeterred, she treated the result as a mere hiccup rather than a setback.
Post the national competition, she remained dedicated to her craft, persisting in her training regimen despite facing meager resources and a lack of adequate facilities. In the absence of suitable training grounds in her vicinity, She found herself practicing on a rudimentary, cemented outdoor boxing ring.
Lack of facilities and performance decline
‘As the sole medallist from the 12-member Delhi team, my journey sheds light on the trials and tribulations women boxers face at the grassroots level in the nation’s capital. Despite being home to the Sports Ministry, the Sports Authority of India (SAI), and various National Sports Federations (NSFs), Delhi lacks the necessary facilities and opportunities for aspiring female athletes,’ said Sansanwal.
There are no quality female sparring partners at the Sports Authority of India Boxing Club, said Sansanwal. ‘During practice, my sparring partners are generally male boxers,It is not as productive, because male sparring partners have a guarded approach when the opponent is a female boxer.’
The downturn in the performance trajectory of the state women’s team is attributed to the dearth of adequate sports facilities. Despite a commendable showing in the 2021 national competition, where the Delhi women’s team clinched three medals, including a gold and two bronze medals, subsequent years witnessed a decline in their achievements. The apparent lack of robust training infrastructure seems to have cast a shadow over their competitive edge. The team, which once stood on the podium with pride, faced challenges in sustaining their winning streak. The pivotal role of well-equipped sports facilities in nurturing talent and maintaining peak performance is underscored by the team’s fluctuating fortunes, revealing the urgent need for enhanced sporting infrastructure to bolster the aspirations of women athletes in Delhi.
The following year (2022), Delhi women’s team returned empty-handed from the national meet. But in the 2023 edition held recently in Greater Noida, the Delhi team won one silver through Shalakha.
‘I am happy that I was successful in winning silver in the nationals I will not stop until I achieve something big in the boxing ring’ she said.
Sansanwal has big plans for the future ‘I want to win medals at the international level in future.’ She has put her marriage plans on hold. ‘There is pressure from family and friends, but my focus is boxing right now,’ she added.
In the dimly lit alleys of Katwaria Sarai, where dreams often flicker and fade, Shalakha Sansanwal’s story shines as a beacon of inspiration, challenging stereotypes and urging for a brighter future for women’s boxing in Delhi.