At This Indian Wrestling Academy, Young Women Find Freedom and Hope

As the winter sun ascends over a mustard farm, pale orange bleeding into sharp yellow, a line of 36 girls all dressed alike — T-shirts, track pants, crew cuts — emerges into an open field, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Under a tin shed, they sit on their haunches, bent over stone mortars. For the next 20 minutes, they crush raw almonds into a fine paste, straining out a bottle of nut milk. They will need it to regain their strength.

Started in 2017, Yudhveer Akhada is a residential wrestling academy for girls, run by a family of competitive wrestlers in Sonipat, a semi-urban industrial town in Haryana, a province in northern India bordering Delhi. Currently it hosts 45 trainees who, on arrival, are typically between 10 and 15 and are expected to stay until they are 20, immersing themselves in the burgeoning community of girls who wrestle. Every student who enters the academy has the same goal: to win an Olympic medal for India.

“In India we are surrounded by the stories of violence against women,” said Prarthna Singh, the photographer on this story. Yet the country has also seen rising participation in women’s sports, like wrestling. “Within those patriarchal constructs, we have these academies where young women are carving out a space for themselves as sportswomen. It’s inspiring to see them put in the dedication and rigor it takes to become one.”

After the warm-up, their training varies. Cardio days can mean a cross-country run or stair climbing. On sports days, they play handball or basketball. Strength-building days are the most demanding of all: The girls must drag blocks of wood across the field or pull themselves up several meters of gnarly ropes.

“Had we not come here, our lives would have been very different,” said Siksha Kharb, above, a 16-year-old girl from a farming family in Sonipat. If she weren’t wrestling, she said, “I would drop out of school to be married off.”

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