India will complete 75 years of Independence this year. Here is a series acknowledging 75 great sporting achievements by Indian athletes. Sportstar will present one iconic sporting achievement each day, leading up to August 15, 2022.
August 17, 2016: Sakshi Malik becomes the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal
Sakshi Malik defeated Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan 8-5 in the 58kg category of women’s freestyle wrestling to win the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016. She was then only the fourth Indian woman to win an Olympic medal and was India’s first medal of that edition of the Games.
After 12 days of hopelessness at the Olympics, the wrestler’s bronze medal somewhat lifted the spirits in the Indian camp. It was some consolation for people back home, who were fed up with stories of Indian athletes’ near hits and misses. It also gave the nation a new sporting icon.
Her moment of Olympic glory is another brilliant story of an underdog. It puts into perspective the hype surrounding India’s quest for a double-digit medals tally in Rio de Janeiro following the country’s best showing in the quadrennial event, in London 2012, where it won six medals.
The 23-year-old wrestler’s progress was rather unexpected.
Knowing Malik’s talent, everybody in wrestling circles expected her to give off her best in the Olympics, but hardly reckoned that she would win a medal.
“To be honest, I gave Sakshi 40 per cent chance (of winning a medal). I thought if she fought fearlessly, then she could get a good result. In my assessment, Vinesh Phogat had a better chance of winning a medal. Unfortunately, Vinesh got injured during a bout,” said Kripa Shankar, who worked as a coach in the National camp for woman wrestlers from 2012 to 2015.
Nevertheless, Malik’s childhood coach Ishwar Dahiya was confident of his ward’s capability. “She is a good student of the sport. I was confident that she would land a medal in the Olympics,” he said.
Malik, no doubt, was always overshadowed by the more famous Geeta Phogat, who dominated the 58 kg category in the country ever since she won the 2010 Commonwealth Games gold medal in Delhi.
Geeta maintained her stranglehold over the 58 kg category by tasting success in important events such as the World Championship and the Asian Championship apart from becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to book a quota place in the Olympics four years ago.
Malik’s attempt to make her mark hit the so-called ‘Geeta roadblock’ that left the youngster demoralised. However, she hung around.
“Sakshi had the spark of a good wrestler from the beginning. She kept on improving with experience. Her leg attack has become famous after she bagged a medal in Rio, but as a junior wrestler, she used to launch direct attacks on her opponents, making her moves too obvious. Gradually, she learnt how to surprise her rivals,” said Kripa Shankar.
Over the years, as she gained in experience, Malik, known as a ‘happy girl’ with a sense of humour, became more responsible. By the time she joined the Revanta Mumbai Garuda in the inaugural Pro Wrestling League (PWL), she had bagged a World junior bronze medal, an Asian championship bronze medal and a silver medal in the Commonwealth Games without even making an impression. The PWL was the turning point in Sakshi’s career and life.
“When I picked Sakshi for Mumbai Garuda, I said, ‘You have to beat Geeta’. She said, ‘I will try’. I told her no champion has ever said these words. You have to believe in your ability and think, ‘I will win,’” said the Mumbai Garuda coach, Mahabir Prasad.
In the PWL, Malik defeated Geeta and that gave her a lot of confidence. “I knew she had a good physique and could do well, but Sakshi was an under-achiever. She had not realised her potential for a long time. Her win over Geeta really turned her around,” said Mahabir.
Kripa Shankar agreed. “Sakshi was always sincere in her training and used to put in the extra effort for her fitness. The win over Geeta in the PWL really boosted her self-belief.”
The girl from Rohtak, who was inspired by her wrestler grandfather to pursue the sport at the Chaudhary Chhoturam Academy in 2004, had finally come of age. Following Geeta’s act of indiscipline in an Olympic qualifying event, Sakshi got the chance and she grabbed the opportunity by securing a berth for the Rio Games.
Her performance in Rio was all about tremendous fightbacks, especially so in the bronze medal match against the Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. It reminded one of a lesser-known Sushil Kumar’s bronze medal-winning effort in Beijing 2008.
The first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal, Sakshi, whose father is a bus conductor, gave the country its fifth wrestling medal and fourth in the last three editions of the Olympics. A post-graduate in physical education, Malik joined an extraordinary generation of sportswomen — including Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, P. V. Sindhu, Mary Kom and Dipa Karmakar — who have made the country proud in elite sporting events.
“Her body language has changed and her hunger for success has increased. The Olympics presented a different Sakshi from the one we knew all these years. Always ahead in terms of endurance and fitness, her determination to do well helped her stage three superb fightbacks and make the country proud,” said Mahabir.
Dahiya, who took Malik the first lessons in wrestling, hoped for a brighter future for his student. “Sakshi is capable of getting even bigger medals in top level competitions.”
The Rio feat should be the first step towards bigger achievements for the sturdy girl from wrestling-crazy Haryana.
(This article was first published in Sportstar’s September 3, 2016 edition)
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