Sushila's Olympic dream on hold after judo team withdraws from qualifiers due to COVID

Sushila Devi Likmabam Sushila Likmabam

The closest Sushila Devi Likmabam came to her physical routines on Wednesday was an hour's sprint in the Bishkek Hotel premises where the Indian team is currently lodged. The 25-year-old judoka is part of India's 15-member team that was forced to pull out of the Asia-Oceania Olympic qualifiers in the Kyrgyz capital after two players tested positive for COVID-19.

Currently, none of the Indian judokas have qualified for the Tokyo Games and this competition was a serious opportunity for them to gain points and move up the rankings. According to qualification guidelines, the top 18 judokas across weight categories as of June 28 this year, will earn a direct Olympic entry. None of the Indians are currently placed inside the top 18 and the most likely route appears to be a continental quota, for which Sushila, ranked 44 in the under 48 kg rankings, is a strong contender.

"We were in the bus on our way to the tournament hall when we heard of the results," says 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist Sushila. "First the entire team was turned away from the competition area and then we were asked to leave our hotel and shifted to another accommodation. We didn't even get to eat anything yesterday. Since this morning, the Indian embassy has been helping us out with food and supplies. We're sitting in our rooms, trying to train whatever little we can or watch a movie. Those of us who've tested negative are allowed to go for a run inside the hotel compound. I'm struggling to focus because we've lost a competition opportunity just like that. Tension bhi ho raha hai aur dukh bhi (We're feeling both tense and sad)."

"I would survive entire tournaments on bread and whatever snacks I managed to carry from home. The usual trick was to oversleep in the morning, so I don't have to buy breakfast." Sushila Devi Likmabam

Between March 30 and April 5, all 15 players and four coaches underwent four rounds of testing - two prior to departure, one on arrival and one before the official weighing in. According to Indian coach Jiwan Sharma, who's traveling with the team, results of both Ajay Yadav (-73 kg) and Ritu Verma (-52 kg) returned positive only in the fourth test. The tournament rules stipulate that if any player tests positive, the entire team will have to withdraw its participation. In addition to India, the 16-player Mongolian team too was struck out from the competition after close to five members tested positive. While those who've tested positive are required to serve the 14-day quarantine, Sharma says he is coordinating with administrators and embassy officials back in New Delhi to arrange for the return of the remaining members of the team by Friday. There are two more competitions -- a Grand Prix event in Russia in May and the World Championships in Hungary in June -- before the qualification window closes.

For Sushila, a constable with Manipur police, the scrapes and binds of her sport aren't fresh or unfamiliar. While the current tournament costs are being covered by the ministry, as recent as a year and a half ago, judokas were paying out of their pockets to fund competition travel. Sushila is still paying off a Rs.4 lakh (approx. US$ 5300) loan from her Rs. 25000 (Approx US$ 330) monthly salary. "We were always thinking of how to manage money for the next competition," she says. "We often forgot that we also had to be able to afford food through our stay. I would survive entire tournaments on bread and whatever snacks I managed to carry from home. The usual trick was to oversleep in the morning, so I don't have to buy breakfast. Now things are so much better."

To keep up some semblance of training during the pandemic-induced lockdown, Sushila cleared up a room in her home in the East Imphal district of Heingang Mayai Leikai, set up a mat and invited a junior national judoka from her region to come live with her family, agreeing to bear all expenses. The arrangement continued for three months. "It's what kept me going through some of last year," she says. "I had almost given up the sport after my injury during the Asian Games trials. I could barely walk and I came back home. It was coach sir (Sharma) who pushed me to continue training. In 2019, I started from zero all over again."

On Sunday, Sushila landed in the Kyrgyz city dreaming of a medal. Three days later, she's already staring at a return without even having played a single bout. "Sometimes you can take all the care possible and still find yourself in such a situation," she says. "They are beyond our control. Bas ab kismet mein jo likha hai wohi hoga (Now whatever is written in our destiny, will happen)."