Forty-seven years old. Mother of two teens. Four gold representing India in her first tournament! Bhavna Tokekar might well be the 'Mary Kom of powerlifting'! Only, the Manipuri boxing champion is around 10 years younger than Bhavna.
She did India proud recently when she won four gold at the Open Asian Powerlifting Championships of AWPC/WPC at Chelyabinsk, Russia. Organised by the World Powerlifting Congress (WPC), the championship saw around 500 players taking part, including 14 Indians. WPC is a worldwide federation to which 46 countries are affiliated.
Powerlifting is a strength sport that comprises three attempts at maximal weight on three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. Bhavna was competing in the Under 67.5kg Masters 2 (45-49 years) category. She won two gold each on July 13 and 14, in separate bench press events and powerlifting. She lifted 267.5kg in powerlifting and 62.5kg in bench press.
“I was both confident and nervous at the same,” said Tokekar to THE WEEK about the championship in Russia. “But it was a great experience. Russians are very warm and friendly, and I made a lot of friends,” she said.
Wife of Indian Air Force fighter pilot and Kargil War hero Group Captain Shreepad Tokekar, Bhavna took to weight training only six years ago. Though she had always followed an active lifestyle—walking, cycling and gardening regularly. She also played table-tennis at district level, representing Panchmahal in Gujarat.
So, is she a Gujarati? “You can say I am an Indian,” she laughed. “I was born in Madhya Pradesh, brought up in Gujarat, my mother tongue is Marathi, and now since I am married to an IAF fighter pilot, I travel all over India!”
Bhavna hit the gym to control the side-effects of the medication—water retention and mood swings—she took for a skin inflammation. “I started feeling better about myself. So, I continued with it and gradually became passionate about it,” she said.
Her husband fuelled her passion with all his heart. “Whatever I have achieved today is because of him (Tokekar). He has been my constant source of motivation and support,” said Bhavna. The children—Ishaan (19) and Aarav (15)—too were her pillars of strength along with her husband. “They (the children) understood my going to the gym every day. They would help me out with household chores and even remind me to take my supplements and medicines on time. They are my gymming partners, too, along with my husband!”
The IAF bodybuilding team, too, played a major role in training her in weight training. Sergeant Brindaban Mohanty, Raj Naik (Mr World 2016) and LAC Gaurav Sharma are some of the members whom Bhavna credited for her success.
It was Corporal Aruvi A., however, who encouraged her to take the decisive leap into powerlifting. For two and a half years, she trained hard under Aruvi's watchful eyes. “I learnt a lot from him,” she said. “He saw my passion and potential and guided me wholeheartedly and motivated me to challenge myself. We are no longer posted at the same place now (Aruvi is in Darjeeling, while the Tokekars are in Bhopal), but he calls me, checks my updates and corrects my technique, advises me on supplements and diet. It means a lot.”
The respect and admiration is mutual. “I met Bhavna ma'am when Tokekar sir and I were posted in Allahabad,” said Aruvi to THE WEEK. “I used to train IAF officers and families in the gym. When I saw her work out, I realised she had the potential despite her age. So, I started helping her work out and within six months I was proved right. I haven't seen too many strong women like her. Her family too supported her a lot.”
The IAF corporal from Kochi was all praise for the couple's attitude. “Though I was a junior in rank, they (Bhavna and Tokekar) treated me with respect. There were no ego clashes at all. They would follow all my instructions. We had a great personal equation as well,” Aruvi said.
There are many myths surrounding bodybuilding, and strength sports, especially when it comes to women. And both Bhavna and Aruvi were determined to break it. “People say it makes the women's body bulky and it's meant for only youngsters. I started training initially when I was 41, but I wanted to be sure of it since I didn’t want to injure myself or do the wrong technique,” Bhavna said.
Aruvi recalled seeing tears in Bhavna's eyes once when the training became unbearable. “I don't know whether she remembers it. Her determination to succeed pulled her through. People would try to discourage her at social gatherings but I would always tell her that they will keep on saying negative things but you should prove them wrong,” Aruvi said.
And prove them wrong she did. With help from her family, trainers and—the internet. Bhavna complemented her training with her own research on the internet about powerlifting and weight training. A latecomer on popular photo-video sharing platform Instagram, Tokekar started following users who gave out credible information on fitness.
It was on Instagram that she met Mohammed Azmat, WPC Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh state head. “I clearly remember the day I messaged him. It was February 10 and I casually asked him if I could participate in the powerlifting event as part of the Indian team. When Azmat sir replied that I could come and give trials, I was ecstatic,” Bhavna said. In fact, Azmat accompanied her to Russia, both as a coach and competitor—he was in Under 100kg Masters 1 category.
The 47-year-old mother's achievement is getting noticed, with legendary actor Amitabh Bachchan himself tweeting about it.
What's next for the powerlifter mother? “The World Powerlifting Championships is coming up in November,” Bhavna said. “It will be held in either Finland or Moscow. I am looking for a sponsor currently. If things fall into place, I will try my best to make India proud again.”