Please tell us about yourself

It’s afternoon and the players are famished. The buffet spread at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Nagpur is lavish—tropical salads, Punjabi, Chinese, Italian, and a live counter serving street food.

At the centre are around 10 extremely calorific desserts, chief among them the gulab jamun, a favourite in the kabaddi community. It’s widely regarded as a great food to refuel muscles after an intense practice session or game.

Polish physiotherapist Oliwia Witek was horrified. “It was like World War III. I changed everything,” says Witek, explaining how she overhauled the diet and workout systems that kabaddi players usually adhere to, before and after a match.

Coming from a family of doctors, pursuing a career in physiotherapy and injury management in sports came naturally to Poland’s Oliwia Witek.

But even then, the 28-year-old had to battle perceptions and questions about her profession of treating injured sportsmen, more so after joining Gujarat Fortune Giants in Pro Kabaddi League as the head physiotherapist.She is the only woman physio in a league that comprises burly men playing a contact sport.

“Everybody tells me, ‘what do you do with men’s team from India?’ I say, ‘all my life I’ve worked only with men’. Even in Poland,” Witek tells DNA.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

Witek is the head physiotherapist for debutants Gujarat Fortune Giants in the Pro Kabaddi League (PKL) season that started 28 July. She also works with the Polish American-football team and assisted Poland, India and Iran during last year’s kabaddi World Cup.

She met Fazel Atrachali while assisting the Iranian team. The Iranian, currently one of the best kabaddi defenders in the world, was picked up by Gujarat at the player auctions for PKL’s season 5 and recommended her name to Gujarat.

Back in her hometown Warsaw, Witek runs a clinic with specialisation in sports injuries, besides working as a physio for an American football team. She also accompanied the Polish national team that visited India in the Kabaddi World Cup in Ahmedabad last year.

That’s when she fell in love with kabaddi as well as India, and decided to come back to the country as the head physio of the Gujarat team.

Her latest role, though not complex, brought with itself a set of varied challenges.

“It’s not hard work. It’s very easy work. It’s like if you know what you’re doing, everything is easy for you.

“But the Indian food was a challenge. Also, the players don’t know English. But that also was taken care of because Hindi is not a very hard language, and now it is very easy to communicate with them,” she says.

What did you study?

Having done her higher studies (Masters in Physiotherapy)  in the United States, Oliwia played volleyball and softball before turning a full-time physio. “I think this was my true calling and I am just happy to be part of it,” she said.

How was the experience working in KPL?

The Gujarat franchise has 19 players, 16 Indians and three foreigners, and Witek’s primary task was to make each one of them feel comfortable with a female physio.

“When we first met, they didn’t know me. But after some time, they saw that everything was normal, just like how it is. They had to accept me,” she says.

“Maybe, the first seven days was a challenge in trying to build some kind of relation with them. But after one week, everything was normal. Now, it’s like a family. We don’t have problems. I treat them very, very good. They also treat me very, very good,” she says.

And she’s quick to add: “We’re like brothers and sisters.”

Part of her relation with the players is also to understand a sportsperson’s mentality during injuries, which comes as naturally to her as her career in physiotherapy.

“Back in school, I was in the volleyball and softball teams. So, I was very well connected with sport. But I was always better in my studies, and that’s why I decided to become a physio.

Tell us about your work

The PKL is changing player attitudes to the sport and fitness. They now know more about recovery plans, injury prevention exercises, diets for a tournament, stability and mobility training.

Witek herself initially had numerous arguments with the coach, Manpreet Singh. Ahead of the training camp held at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Gujarat from 15 June-24 July, Witek had to deal with multiple injuries—some of the Indian players had been inactive ahead of the camp.

“If you want, you can be like Cristiano Ronaldo. I can change your body but I cannot easily change your mind. But if you’re Indian and I am a girl from Europe, it’s hard (only 20% of the players understand English). My sense of humour helps,” she says.

Gujarat captain Sukesh Hegde, who played for Telugu Titans last season, weighed 87.7kg before the training camp. He’s now 83.2kg. More importantly, his fat percentage, which was on the higher side—17.5 %, now stands at an impressive 11%.

Hegde can now run quicker. He initially clocked 13 seconds for a 100m dash. He can now do it in 11.3s.

“None of my players has suffered a major injury so far. We had injury-prevention programme before the tournament. The result is that our players are in good condition, they are not afraid of anything,” Witek says.

“My specialisation is sports injury. I can work with and deal with sportsmen because I know their mentality. I know a thing or two about sports as well. And I enjoy sports. That’s why I stay in sports, and I help them,” she says.Treating injuries aside, a major chunk of her role is to ensure that the players remain fit throughout the gruelling, non-stop three-month long kabaddi league.

“What we’re doing is injury prevention. They have a lot of exercises, and a lot of recovery training. All the time, I talk to the coach, telling him, ‘we must do this, we must do that’. Our coaches are very good, and they were also kabaddi players. So, they know about injuries from a players’ perspective.

“I was never a kabaddi player, but I know different things. So, it’s about trying to connect the information and create a good chance for players to be injury-free. We do everything we can do be strong,” she says.

And she hopes to do that not just in this season, but for years to come in the same sport and league.

“No, no, no,” she shoots back when asked if she would like to venture into new sports as a physio.

“My future is kabaddi, my future is Gujarat. I don’t know if I will go home,” she says with a chuckle.