Sakshi Malik, who made the country proud by becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to clinch a medal in the Rio Olympics, and Dipa Karmakar, who was the first Indian gymnast to qualify for the Olympics and finished a creditable fourth in her pet event vault, are perhaps the most deserving candidates to have been chosen for the prestigious Padma Shri award this year.

Sakshi and Dipa were among the few sportspersons who stole the heart of the nation in the Rio Games even as India, which had bagged six medals in the 2012 London Olympics, gave a dismal performance to settle for a silver and bronze in 2016.

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Hailing from Haryana’s Rohtak, Sakshi — a Commonwealth Games silver medallist in 2014 and an Asian championship bronze medallist in 2015 — got the chance to compete in the Olympic qualifier because of the disciplinary action against star wrestler Geeta Phogat. Sakshi grabbed the opportunity by qualifying for the Olympics and then displayed a series of dramatic fightbacks in Rio to claim the women’s 58kg bronze medal.

Twenty-four-year-old Sakshi, who always remained away from the limelight despite her podium finishes, finally did justice to her prowess on the mat and stood alongside shuttler P. V. Sindhu, who secured the women’s singles silver, with a medal around her neck in Rio.

Dipa, the 23-year-old icon of gymnastics, belonging to Tripura capital Agartala, had a similar journey. She had shown glimpses of her potential by winning bronze medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 Asian championships. Dipa, coached by her mentor and coach Bisweshwar Nandi, did commendably well by making the cut for the Olympics by scoring 14.8333 in vault in the Olympic Test event, the last competition for qualifying the for the Rio Games.

In spite of the competitive field, packed with top-notch gymnasts from around the globe, the country had pinned its hopes on Dipa because of her high difficulty level by performing the Produnova vault. The pint-sized girl gave a courageous performance to score a high 15.066 in the vault final. She might have missed out on a medal by a wafer-thin margin of 0.15 points and taken the fourth place, but she won billions of hearts with her fabulous showing.

The heroics of the two girls should inspire a generation of Indian athletes.