Popy Hazarika, who pursued sports to overcome father's loss, wins gold at National Games

Panjim: Popy Hazarika has battled numerous odds in her brief but eventful weightlifting career that started nearly a decade back. Every time she has been pushed against the wall, she has rediscovered herself and never looked back.

With thoughts of quitting the sport due to financial constraints flashing her mind in 2018 to a seventh-place finish at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games, Popy has seen the highs and lows from close quarters, and as she had conceded, “There is only one way from here…”, the 25-year-old on Thursday chose to bury all those memories and rise her way to a gold in the 59 kg weight division at the 37th National Games in Goa.

Representing Assam, Popy came up with a cumulative effort of 191kgs (86kg in Snatch & 105kg in Clean & Jerk) to better her previous high of a silver medal finish at the Gujarat edition of the Games, last year. Punjab’s Davinder Kaur (183kg) and Andhra’s M Deepanayomi (180kg) picked the silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Born on December 8, 1998, in the remote Namti Salkathoni village of Assam’s Sibsagar district, Popy is the youngest of four siblings. At the age of five, Popy lost her father, a driver by profession. Popy’s father lost his life while washing his car at a nearby pond, where he came in contact with an electric wire leaving him battling for his life for close to an hour.

Popy was enrolled in sports to help her overcome the trauma of losing her father, even as the burden of managing the family, also comprising three other sisters, fell on their widowed mother Dipti Hazarika.

With the assistance of locals at Namti village, Dipti managed to take up the job of a temporary cook at the village school for a meagre salary of Rs 2,500 per month, besides working in the paddy fields of the village on a daily wage of Rs 150-200 to support her family.

For young Popy, the track and field events (discus and javelin throw) caught her attention while attending her village school before a chance meeting with fellow weightlifter Dimpi Dutta changed the course of her career, as the duo started training in the discipline under coach Duljit Boruah at the weightlifting hall of Swahid Peoli Phukan College.

A gold medal at the District meet in 2014 gave her the wings before she stamped her class with a gold in the 48kg category in the state meet in 2016. Lack of proper diet and nutrition did peg her back for some time but Baruah ensured that it was taken care of on his part. “Even though there was one set left for training, she would complete it after all the kids left. That was the kind of dedication she had shown during her formative stages,” Baruah said.

The next year, Popy managed to clear the trials for the SAI centre in Golaghat, where she came under the tutelage of Om Prasad Kalyani. Under Kalyani, she went on to win the 48kg gold in the state meet in 2016. “As a coach, the only problem I faced training Popy was the constant need to motivate constantly.”

However, things changed a lot in the next two years, and after bagging a silver at the Junior Nationals in 59kg, Popy didn’t need the constant motivation anymore as she had already learnt to deal with success and failure and more importantly, balance her career’s goals.

But the lack of a permanent job and the rising cost of supplements and dietary requirements did force Popy to rethink her decision to continue the sport as she headed back to her SAI hostel in Golaghat, with a newspaper advertisement about recruitment in Assam Police and sat down with her roommate Dimpi to discuss leaving the hostel and opting for the physical test and recruitment process.

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Pursued by her mother with a commitment to support her career, Poppy shifted her focus back to the sport, to win a silver medal at the Senior Nations in 2020, followed by a silver and a gold at the Senior Nations in Patiala and Orissa, and eventually ending her job hunt with an offer from the Indian Railways in 2021.

Her first major international break came in Tashkent, where she pocketed a silver medal at the Commonwealth Championships in 2021 before bagging a gold medal at Singapore International in 2022. Riding high on the success, Popy was a hot favourite for a podium finish at the 2022 CWG in Birmingham, before cramps laid her down and left her wailing all night.

In September 2022, Popy roared back with a silver in Gujarat, and improved further with a gold at the Commonwealth Championships in Noida in July, before capping the season with another yellow metal on Thursday.

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