SISAI (India) — Driven by dreams of winning medals for their country, two dozen girls and young women train to become wrestlers in a cluster of white one-storey buildings set on a dusty track winding through farmland on the edge a north Indian village.
Wrestling is popular among Indian men, with thousands of training centres nationwide.
But a new generation of women was inspired by the triumph of Ms Geeta Phogat, who became the first female Indian wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi in 2010.
Indian women won three bronze medals at the recent Asian Games in China, and last year a former Altius student won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Britain.
Another Altius student, Ms Sonu Kaliraman, 27, represented India before suffering a serious injury. She now coaches there. Her story is emblematic of the journey of its students.
Ms Kaliraman remembers yearning to be among the girls she watched exercising in the schoolyard on her way to work in the fields each day. And she recalls the thrill of her first glimpse of an aeroplane when she competed overseas.
Women are changing conservative attitudes by winning medals and proving they can be world-class athletes, she said.
“We have progressed a little and we will keep progressing further,” said Ms Kaliraman, seated on a bed in her village home, as her proud mother tenderly stroked her head.
India’s national wrestling federation is going through troubled times. In August, the global governing body for the sport, United World Wrestling, provisionally suspended it for not holding timely elections.
And a former federation chief faces legal proceedings after accusations of sexual harassment by several top female wrestlers this year.
The sports ministry, which oversees the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), said every effort would be made to improve safeguards for female athletes.
“When a woman has to stand up against a strong power then she has to put a lot of things at stake, her career, her life,” Ms Sharma said, commenting on the controversy.
Ms Sharma’s husband remembers telling his sister, also a wrestler, how to respond: “You protest and slap first and then leave, and don’t think about medals.” REUTERS