I want to inspire girls to pursue combat sports: Sonia Bhardwaj

Currently ranked 69th in the world, Sonia Bhardwaj is one of India’s top talents in taekwondo. The 21 year old is currently a part of the Peace Taekwondo Academy and is fully focused on improving her rankings to qualify for the Olympics. In this exclusive interview, Sonia speaks about her journey in taekwondo, winning the gold medal at the India Open, overcoming challenges, the importance of mental strength, future goals and much more!

Q 1) When were you first introduced to taekwondo and what made you pursue it professionally?

I started Taekwondo in 2011 as I wanted to learn martial arts. The atmosphere in my house was a little conservative, my sister got married at the age of 21. When I started Taekwondo I had to listen to a lot of taunts and I was asked to concentrate on my studies. In my household it's not even like you can complete your studies to make your career. It's like you study till the 12th standard and then do the rest after marriage. I wasn't interested in getting married and I didn't want that life. My brother was my first coach and I trained with him for a year before getting a silver medal in the nationals. That silver medal gave me a lot of motivation and even my family was really happy with that. They were mainly impressed by the prize money which showed them that girls' income isn't dependent just on studies but they can earn via sports as well. 

After that I kept on progressing and winning more medals. When you get a medal in nationals, the Haryana Government gives you a scholarship. That gave me a lot of support and motivation. Then I found out that taekwondo is played in the Olympics as well and that pushed me to work harder. From my background not a lot of girls play sports so that is a kind of responsibility on my shoulders. Everyone in my family and a lot of other people think that girls can only study and do nothing after that. I want to become an example and prove them wrong, so that more girls can start playing sports. 

Q 2) You won the gold medal at the India Open in 2019. Was it the most special achievement in your career? If not, which are the other most memorable achievements?

I would say that the India Open is my biggest achievement. After that win my family seriously started supporting me. Before that it was just like I was getting medals and earning money but then they found out that I was making a name for myself. The event was broadcasted live on DD Sports and everyone in my neighborhood and family were watching it live and cheering for me. My father was also happy to see that I am doing really well because the Nationals didn't get telecasted live and I didn’t get any fame from it. I got a little famous after that and people got to know about me. That was the first time I got a compliment from my father which was a proud moment for me.

Q 3) What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in your taekwondo career? How did you overcome them?

Financially I faced a lot of problems because my parents weren't that stable but they did support me as much as they could. A lot of times I didn't have money to participate in championships. After the India Open, I was All India rank 1 but I still didn't have sponsors to participate in championships. That was the time when I was at the peak of my game and I would've won more medals had I got more support. After that I kept getting demotivated and then as I was searching for sponsors the whole world went into lockdown. I became very frustrated and didn't understand what to do while age was also catching up. People also started talking about how I wasn't winning medals anymore and it was sort of like I was getting the blame. After that I started getting injured as well which was very demotivating. Even paying the physiotherapist after an injury was getting very expensive.

Also read: Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee inspired me to take up martial arts: Radha Bhati

Q 4) How important is mental strength for a taekwondo athlete to become successful at the highest level?

In taekwondo, mental strength is the most important thing. If you're not mentally strong then it becomes difficult to strategize. As taekwondo athletes we have to do meditation to keep our mental side of the game active.

Q 5) Who are the taekwondo athletes that you look up to and why?

When I was kid I didn’t see many athletes, but you can say my brother used to show me taekwondo moves when I was young, I initially started taekwondo thinking it was karate. My brother used to show me a lot of taekwondo videos and there I used to follow a Chinese player called Wu Jin Yu. I still follow her moves as she was a former Olympic champion. She is an inspiration also as she won a World Championship medal at the age of 33 after giving birth.

Q 6) What are your future goals as a taekwondo athlete? How do you plan to achieve them?

Firstly, my main goal is to improve my ranking to qualify for the Olympics. I plan to achieve this by participating in small international tournaments by winning medals there. My current rank is 69 in the world and my Olympic rank is 120. If I come in the top 8 of the Olympic ranks, then I will get direct entry into the Olympics. Once I qualify for the Olympics then I plan to win a medal now that the Shikhar Dhawan Foundation is sponsoring me till the 2024 Olympics.


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