Ever since the nation-wide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic was announced in March, last year, Poonam Tiwari has been coaching athletes that hail from villages in and around Hardoi in Uttar Pradesh. The coaching is free of cost and many of these rural girls have bagged medals at national and state levels.
Poonam Tiwari at her home in Hardoi. (Photo: Neetu Singh)
Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh
Poonam Tiwari’s tryst with her sporting career hasn’t been a typical story of recognition and riches that follows after success at an international platform. Instead, the 45-year-old from Uttar Pradesh’s Hardoi district had to struggle throughout her journey, first as a weightlifter, then as a coach — training village athletes that won accolades at national and state level — with no support from the government.
The biggest achievement of her sporting career is her maiden experience at the international event — Asian Powerlifting Championship held in South Korea in 2002. She bagged a silver medal for the country. Since then, for the past 19 years, she has doubled up as a coach and a referee in sports tournaments at national and sometimes international events.
Amongst the players coached by her, 23 have excelled in sports events at the national level and 24 have secured medals at the state level.
And, ever since the lockdown in the wake of Coronavirus pandemic was announced in March, last year, Tiwari has been coaching athletes that hail from villages in and around Hardoi. The coaching is free of cost as most of the athletes belong to poor families.
Just a kilometre away from the Hardoi district headquarters, Tiwari trains athletes from villages in and around Hardoi. Female athletes have a significant presence in the training session.
Gaon Connection witnessed that preparations were underway for a sporting event that is scheduled to be organised at Cooch Behar in West Bengal on March 15.
Twenty-two-year-old Sailja, who lives in a village 60 kms away from Hardoi, told Gaon Connection: “Women are not encouraged to take up sports in our village, especially women like me as I am mother to a four-year-old.”
“For the first time, I have the opportunity to participate at the national level. My family has allowed me to come here for training because this same coach trained my niece who excelled at the national level. So they have the trust in our coach,” she added.
Palak Singh, 17, echoed Sailja’s enthusiasm: “I have been coming to be coached by Poonam ma’am for the last five years. It is because of her training that I won my first gold medal at the national level… after I excelled at the sport, my elder sister, friend and my maami (maternal aunt) were also allowed to pursue sports.”
Tiwari has been coaching at the Hardoi Sports Stadium for almost 18 years now. But the nationwide lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 disrupted her ad hoc arrangement at the stadium. “I have been training locals at the path along the field outside my house after the stadium administration couldn’t pay me after the lockdown,” she said.
Tiwari was born into a middle-class family and had five siblings. “My father worked as a truck driver and the mother was a home-maker. I had to fund my education from the ninth standard itself,” Tiwari told Gaon Connection.
“When I went to represent India at the Asian Powerlifting Championship in South Korea in 2002, my father was admitted to a hospital in the aftermath of a heart-attack. Doctors had informed that he could pass away at any moment but my father motivated me to go ahead,” she narrated.
“People in Hardoi crowd-funded to send me to South Korea to participate in the event. I went to the tournament with a dream to win it and get my father treated from the money I get at the championship,” she added.
Tiwari also said that at the beginning of her career, she had no ambition of making it to the international level. “The financial condition of our family was in shambles. I merely wanted to get a government job to support my family but my teachers encouraged me to take up sports,” she added.
“The first job that I got was as an ad hoc coach at the Hardoi Sports Stadium in 2002. I was paid twelve hundred rupees per month back then. Before the lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic was announced, I was receiving a salary of twenty five thousand rupees. I have always worked as an ad hoc coach,” she told Gaon Connection.
Tiwari is thankful to her father Rajdhar Mishra for her success. “He allowed me to pursue sports at a time when the girl child was given basic education and wedded off at a young age. He received the brunt of the conservative, patriarchal society for allowing his daughter to become an athlete. He passed away five years back. He was himself a weightlifter. Initially, he coached me as well. It is due to him that I managed to accomplish these things in life,” she told Gaon Connection.