The strength Harjinder Kaur showed in the tug-of-war opened doors for her to become a weightlifter. Her strong arms, she says, were developed by cutting fodder. It was hard labour on what is known as the toka, a chaff cutting machine which requires the operator to turn a giant wheel with blades.
The 25-year-old weightlifter, a bronze medal winner in the 71 kg at the Commonwealth Games, is now reaping the rewards of the hard work she put in over the years, on the field and while lifting weights on a barbell. Kaur lifted a total of 212 kg to finish behind England’s Sarah Davies and Canadian Alexis Ashworth in a high drama event and claimed the bronze medal.
Her family lived in a one-room house, they owned six buffaloes and work on contracted farmland. But life was hard in Mehas village near Nabha, she says. Kabaddi, a popular sport in the hinterlands of Punjab was her first love. Sport, kabaddi first, then tug of war and later weightlifting, helped her uplift her family.
“My father would give me Rs 350 for the return fare from Nabha to the college hostel in Sri Anandpur Sahib and another Rs 350 as pocket money. I felt ashamed to ask for more money,” Harjinder said before her competition at the CWG. “If I win a medal, I would say that the fodder I cut on a toka helped me build strong arms and it helped me when I took up weightlifting,” Harjinder added.
She is the youngest child of Sahib Singh and Kuldeep Kaur. The youngster would play kabaddi at the Government Girls School at Nabha. She would cycle five kilometres to get there. When she joined college, in Anandpur Sahib, coach Surinder Singh made her play for the college Kabaddi team. An year later, Kaur joined the sports wing at Punjabi University, Patiala where coach Paramjeet Sharma spotted her talent.
Her strong arms, the coach felt, would help her walk into tug of war teams. The 1990 Commonwealth Games champion (69kg) in weight lifting had already planned her career path. The tug of war was only the first step.
“I was surprised at how much power she had as a teenager when we put her into the tug of war teams. She undertook some national tours. It took some time to convince her to shift to weightlifting. There were times when she would return to her village and did not show too much of interest in weightlifting. But she would always return. Today I can say it was the right decision to make her a weightlifter,” Sharma, 65, said.
“Sometimes Harjinder got carried away because of her own power. In weightlifting, power without technique is disastrous. She needed a mentor and guide,” he added.
“As she had a good physique, we did not have to worry about her power. But sometimes she would go all out in one lift. I had to make her understand that it does not work that way. I wanted her to maintain good stamina. So she started with running before I worked on things like split snatch, pull and jerk and wrist position.,” Sharma said.
Her father and elder brother Pritpal Singh were her constant support. They would take loans from relatives and friends. The biggest amount borrowed was Rs 50,000 from the village bank to support Kaur. Soon Harjinder along with elder brother Pritpal Singh was helping pay off part of the loan. In 2017, she became the state weightlifting champion and started winning cash prizes. By this time brother Pritpal Singh was appointed as a clerk on probation basis. His salary of Rs 10,000 helped ease the financial strain.
She went from strength to strength.
All India Inter University champion, silver at the Senior Nationals, silver in the Khelo India Inter University games were some of her early podium places.
When a lockdown was imposed because of Covid, Harjinder and other trainees shifted to coach Sharma’s home. “I did not have my own barbell set. So I had to take a barbell set from the university with an undertaking and shifted to sir’s home,” Harjinder says. The coach’s mother, in her 90s, was at risk. So the trainees didn’t step out because they didn’t want to get infected and bring the virus home.
“It helped that they trained in a group. It was light training but it helped keep them in share,” coach Sharma added.
Earlier this year, she won the gold in 71 kg category in Senior Nationals in Orissa with a total lift of 208kg (92kg in snatch and 116 in clean and jerk). Soon she was included in the national camp. “Coming to the camp made me not worry about things like physio or supplements or coaching. To see Mirabai (Chanu) didi and later take a selfie with her remains my special moment. Hopefully I can take a selfie with Mirabai didi after winning the CWG medal,” Harjinder said.