Pooja Rani, who hails from a village in the Bhiwani district of Haryana, took to boxing at the age of 18 more than a decade ago.
Rani’s passion for the sport is natural because Bhiwani is the cradle of boxing in India.
However, her father, a police officer, was vehemently opposed to his daughter’s passion.
But that didn’t stop Rani from following her heart. On days when she would get a pasting from her opponent, she would stay back at her friend’s place to evade her father’s prying eyes.
Rani’s love for boxing helped her overcome the patriarchal deterrents and the exploits in the ring eventually made her the cynosure conservative family’s eyes.
Now, the 30-year-old Rani is already among the top female boxers in Asia, having proved her class at the Asian Boxing Championship (Dubai) in May with a gold medal in the 75kg category.
This was Rani’s second straight gold medal-winning performance at the Asian championships, with her first one coming in 2019.
Now, Rani will be one of India’s brightest medal prospects at the Tokyo Olympic Games (July 23-August 8).
It has been a remarkable journey for this feisty boxer from a tiny Haryana village to the Olympic Village in Tokyo.
Rani would have faced more obstacles in her path to the world’s greatest sporting event if Lakshya Institute, an "athletes-first” outfit in Pune, had not been a constant source of support.
The not-for-profit organisation has been working tirelessly to support talented athletes from the interior regions of India.
“All of us, who were involved in setting up Lakshya Institute, a professionally managed not-for-profit organisation, had a sports background,” Sunder Iyer, secretary of the outfit, told Khaleej Times.
Iyer is also the honorary joint secretary of All India Tennis Association (AITA), and honorary secretary of Maharashtra State Lawn Tennis Association (MSLTA).
Lakshya, which means goal in Hindi, seeks to zero in on precocious talents from India’s hinterland and help them represent the country at the highest level.
And their record speaks for itself.
Data showed that six of the athletes, including Rani, who have been supported by them, have made the grade for the Tokyo Olympics.
The others are boxer Simranjit Kaur, Sutirtha Mukherjee, a Commonwealth Games gold medal-winning table tennis player, Sharath Kamal, India’s best table tennis player and winner of four Commonwealth Games gold medals, shooter Sanjeev Rajput and racewalker Sandeep Kumar.
Five of the athletes, supported and groomed by Lakshya, represented India in the 2012 London Olympics and seven of their athletes featured in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“We’ve always been looking for talented sports people in small towns across the country,” said Iyer.
Lakshya’s support for Rani after the worst setback in her life is exemplary.
Rani decided to call it quits five years ago after she had burnt her hand while bursting Diwali crackers. She was out of the ring for nearly a year after undergoing surgery.
But the boxer came back with all guns blazing on the back of Lakshya’s support and motivation.
Now the organisation has set its sights on young athletes that could go on to represent India in multiple Olympics.
Lakshya also is busy training 12-year-old children in various disciplines. Many of these young athletes could be ready for the 2028 Olympics.
So far, the organisation has provided holistic support to more than a hundred sports persons from nine disciplines in the country, including 14 Olympians.
Lakshya's objective is to identify and nurture budding athletes by providing a 360-degree technical and financial support to help them qualify for the Olympics and win medals.
Support from several corporate houses and entrepreneurs like Baba Kalyani, who heads Bharat Forge, has helped Lakshya in their pursuit of building future Olympians.
Lakshya has also helped set up a shooting academy in Pune called Gun for Glory and also helps run the Hawa Singh Boxing Academy in Bhiwani.
The organisers provide equipment for the promising players such as guns and ammunition for shooters, boxing gloves, punching bags, tennis and badminton kits, chess boards, advanced bows and arrows and wrestling kits.
Apart from providing the young athletes with injury and rehabilitation support, Lakshya also ensures that they have access to physiotherapists, psychologists and nutritionists.
Acknowledging the role played by Lakshya in the Indian sporting landscape, the Indian government honored the group with the Rashtriya Khel Protsahan Puruskar (National Sports Encouragement Award).