Sakshi Malik's 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medal: A dream fulfilled

“It was my first Olympics and I wanted to do well. But I surprised myself when I landed a medal,” says the first woman wrestler from the country to earn Olympic glory.

When India’s male wrestlers could not manage a podium finish at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, Sakshi Malik sprung a surprise by securing a historic bronze medal in the women’s 58kg category.

Sakshi’s journey – from underdog to unexpected medallist – made her the first woman wrestler from the country to earn Olympic glory and provided a boost to female wrestling, which had so far been headlined by the Phogat sisters.

Sakshi enjoyed a slice of luck when Geeta Phogat unceremoniously forfeited her bronze medal match at the Olympic qualifiers in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, after failing to make the cut for Rio. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) withdrew Geeta from the Istanbul qualifier in May 2016 for her “indiscipline” and sent Sakshi, who had won an Asian Championships bronze, an Asian Games bronze and a Commonwealth Games silver in 2014, instead.

Sakshi, who had earlier earned some attention by beating Geeta in the Pro Wrestling League, grabbed the opportunity not only in Istanbul, but in the Brazilian capital as well.

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Showing tremendous resilience, the Rohtak girl got the better of world championship bronze medallist Johanna Mattsson of Sweden and Moldovan Mariana Cherdivara before losing to eventual silver medallist Valeria Koblova of Russia in the quarterfinals. In the repechage rounds, Sakshi beat Mongolia’s Purevdorjin Orkhon, who became world champion the following year, and Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan, who became world champion in 2019, to script history.

Sakshi burst into tears as she became the fourth woman from the country to win an Olympic medal.

“Before the Olympics, I used to visualise myself on the podium in Rio. But the way my coach (Kuldeep Malik) carried me on his shoulders was unexpected. I was in tears and was going through mixed feelings,” said Sakshi, looking back at her achievement.

“It was my first Olympics and I wanted to do well. But I surprised myself when I landed a medal. My dream was fulfilled in my first appearance.

“My coach said, ‘I have never seen a more disciplined wrestler like you and this medal is the result of that,’” said Sakshi. She picked her semifinal contest and her bronze medal match as the toughest bouts.

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Sakshi, who joined the elite company of K. D. Jadhav, Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, was excited on her return. “I saw thousands of fans at the Delhi airport. I had never seen so many people. In Rohtak, many people, including relatives who criticised me for doing wrestling and wearing the looks of a boy, complimented me,” said Sakshi, backed by JSW.

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