Antim Panghal blinked back tears of joy on the wrestling mat at Belgrade’s Stark Arena on Thursday night. She had just brushed aside the challenge of Sweden’s two-time European champion Jonna Malmgren, picking up a 16-6 win by technical superiority in the bronze medal match of the women’s 53kg category at the Wrestling World Championships.
In doing so, Antim, who had celebrated her 19th birthday just a month ago, became the youngest Indian to win a medal at the World Championships. With the win, Antim, who earlier this year became the first Indian to win a junior world title for the second time, also earned a quota for the Paris Olympics next year.
There were completely different emotions just a day ago. As she walked back from the competition wrestling mat into the bowels of the stadium for the last time on Wednesday night, Antim had been utterly distraught.
She was bawling even as Indian coaches and physios tried to console her. “ Koi nahi beta, aur chance milega (It’s ok child, you will get more chances)” they said vainly. The 19-year-old was having none of it. Competing in the semifinals of the women’s 53kg division at the Wrestling World championships, Antim had secured what had seemed to be a decisive takedown and was leading 4-3 against Vanessa Kaladzinskaya, when the buzzer went off.
Kaladzinskaya turned the Indian to her back to take two points for exposure and consequently a place in the final with a 5-4 win. While some felt the Indian had been hard done by, Kaladzinskaya’s counter was a legitimate one. That did little to assuage the disappointment in the Indian camp.“It wasn’t even a last-second move. She (Kaladzinskaya) made it with 0.6 seconds on the clock. You can imagine how disappointed Antim was,” says Randhir Singh, coach of the Indian team.
Chance to impress
The World Championships had been a crucial tournament for the 19-year-old. She was tipped to be the next big thing in Indian wrestling after she became the first Indian woman to win a junior world title last year. Yet, despite making history, she had remained firmly in the shadow of two-time World bronze medallist, Asian Games champion and two-time Olympian Vinesh Phogat, who had beaten her twice last year.
It was that extensive body of work that gave Vinesh an automatic quota place to compete at the Asian Games without giving a trial this year. Antim had gone to court to protest that decision but to no avail. When Vinesh had to withdraw from the Asian Games and the World Championships owing to a knee injury, it gave Antim a chance to finally prove herself.
“Antim had gone to the World championships thinking she would fight for the gold. She wasn’t thinking of any other medal. She knew she had to win gold for people to believe that she was the best wrestler in India in her category. But it wasn’t meant to be,” says Vikas Bhardwaj who coaches Antim at Hisar Baba Lal Das Kushti Akhada.
She didn’t have the best preparation in the build-up to the competition. Just a day before she left for Serbia, Antim suffered a fall while climbing a rope at her akhara. While the 15-foot fall didn’t cause any serious damage, Bhardwaj admits she was still bruised from the incident.
That didn’t show on the mat in Belgrade. Antim looked to be in fine touch, opening her competition with what was on paper an upset of 2022 World Champion Dominique Parrish, beating the American 3-2. Although Antim had beaten the American last year in the Tunisia ranking series, this was her first win over Parrish following the latters world title. The Indian followed that up with a 10-0 disposal of Poland’s Roksana Zasina and then a tightly fought 4-3 win over Russian veteran Natalia Malysheva in the quarterfinals. Then came the agonizing loss against Kaladzinskaya.
It was the second time Indian wrestling had been heartbroken by the Belarussian wrestler. Two years ago, Kaladzinskaya had beaten Vinesh Phogat in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics en route to a bronze medal of her own.
Once the tears stopped, Antim focussed on the task at hand. “She was very disappointed. But we tried to build her confidence up. We said there would be many big matches in her career in the future. She had lost in the semifinals, but she still had the chance to return with a medal,” says Randhir Singh.
He says that Antim was completely focussed on her bronze medal bout. Even though the Indian had made the semifinal, there was no guarantee that she would return with a medal against Malmgren who made her way into the playoff through repechage. The Swede was a two-time European champion in the 53kg weight division and had earned the right to compete against Antim after pinning three-time European Champion Stalvira Orshush.
Indeed, this was the second time in consecutive years that Malmgren would stand between an Indian and a world medal. Last year, Malmgren came on the wrong side of an 8-0 loss to Vinesh, who would create history by becoming the first Indian woman to win a second World medal (she had won her first bronze in 2019).
The Indian started strongly, getting a step out and then shooting low to grab Malmgren’s left leg and flip her over for a 5-0 lead inside a minute and 20 seconds of the first round. The Swede came storming back and very nearly pinned Antim, scoring six straight points before the Indian got back one on a counter as the first half ended with the score 6-6.
In the second half, it was all one way in favour of Antim though. She scored off a counter to lead 8-6, then shot for her takedown and nearly wrapped up a leg lace to go 12-6 up. With time running out, Malmgren made desperate attacks, which Antim would counter to score a takedown and then an exposure to pick up the win by technical superiority just as the whistle blew for the final time.
Such is her potential that Antim’s win, as comprehensive as it was, wasn’t the result she would be satisfied with. “Before the tournament, we were only thinking of the gold. That was what our training was for,” Bhardwaj says. That would mean a bout against Japan’s Akari Fujinami. Who won her second world title in dominating fashion with a 10-0 superiority win over Antim’s vanquisher Kaladzinskaya.
But the Indian will have another shot at the 19-year-old Japanese phenomenon. Having already competed against her once before (at the 2023 Asian Championships where the Japanese won 10-0 in the final), Antim will likely face up against Fujinami at the Asian Games, in a couple of weeks, where both have been entered in the Women’s 53kg category. While she has a World bronze, there’s no guaranteed place for Antim just yet at the Paris Olympics – the quota she won doesn’t belong to her but to the country. But if Belgrade has given her reason to wipe her tears, Antim will want to find even more of a reason to smile in Hangzhou.
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