Grit should now be her middle name. Every time she slipped, eye flipping over to the score-board showing points against her, Sakshi Malik, gritted her teeth, settled into the crouch, feet planted firmly on the mat, arms raised, ready to carry forward what she felt was a single-minded battle to somehow put India onto the medal table in Rio. She had already seen and heard the close finishes; medal hopes vanishing like smoke puffs. Vinesh Phogat’s terrible knee injury must have rattled her. Vinesh looked a good bet for a medal after her superb first round 11-0 win over Romania’s Emilia Alina Vuc. But a knee twisted under the body weight of her opponent China’s Sun Yanan demoralized a nation further, already reeling with too many questions on its sporting capabilities.
And when it all came down to the play-off bout, it seemed to be headed in the wrong direction as Aisuluu Tynybekova led 5-0. It was in the second period that Sakshi finally got the grip around the waist of the Kyrgyzstan wrestler and threw her down on the mat. Two points in successive holds allowed her to cut the margin to 4-5. She knew that the opponent was moving fast and that Tynybekova had the speed. Belief came rushing back as the scores were tied 5-5. In these moments, wrestlers either panic or pull out an unknown reserve of strength. Sakshi could see the medal, the years of hard work, a decade of being obsessed with her own flaws, whether she was good enough for the sport’s biggest stage or not. Then suddenly, a rush of strength, belief and Tynybekova had been pinned down. Three more points gave her victory. And Sakshi Malik was no more just another name. Not another wrestler dreaming big. She had been penciled down alongside names like Karnam Malleswari, Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal. Before today, she would have looked at them in awe. Now she stood alongside them.
“I was all along confident,” she said later. “I always felt I would win. I did not back down and kept pushing. This is historic for Indian women wrestlers. This is the result of over ten years of hard work. I feel proud and special that I could get this medal for India.”
The quarter-final loss to Russia’s Valeria Koblova must have hurt. She had chances but the superior skills and agility of her opponent saw her lose 2-9. It would have ended there except for the fact that Koblova reached the final, giving Sakshi a second chance in the repechage.
It was the bout against the Mongolian that gave Sakshi the confidence she was looking for. It was only in February that the wrestling world had been stunned when the Mongolian Orkhon Purevdorj had beat 3-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho 10-0. The Mongolian had dominated the match taking a huge lead and collecting the gold medal in a Grand Prix event. Now Sakshi faced the Orkhon who was also the 2013 Junior World bronze winner.
Initially, both matched up with the scores tied at 2-2. Though, Sakshi looked a little ragged at this stage, the bouts taking their toll, she became more aggressive flipping the Mongolian time and again, gaining points at a fast clip. Orkhon didn’t even realise when the scores was 6-3 in Sakshi’s favour with only a minute left. The Mongolian had to throw caution to the winds and open up her defence to try and topple over Sakshi. But that only gave the Rohtak girl the opening she was looking for and she went for the kill, gaining four more points to kill the bout.
Even in the first two rounds, Sakshi had to do it the hard way. Trailing on points, she constantly fought back. Showing amazing resilience, she time and again toppled good opponents. Against Sweden’s Malin Johanna Mattsson, a European Champion and bronze medalist at the World Championships, Sakshi was 0-4 down. In the second period, she turned it around gaining four points and then pushing the Swede out of the mat to grab the winning point.
For Sakshi, a Commonwealth Games silver medalist, even though Mariana Cherdivara-Esanu was not in the same class, the bout was tough. Mariana has qualified for the Rio Olympic Games after Ukraine’s Oksana Herhel failed a dope test. Mariana led 3-0 at the break. But Sakshi, again, came back strongly for a double take down which gave her four crucial points in one go, giving her a 5-3 lead. Though, Cherdivara gained another two points to level the scores, Sakshi won on bigger points.
Sakshi’s coach back in Rohtak, Ishwar Singh, recalls her becoming junior champion, “I had then requested GS Mander, the then WFI President to take her into the senior group as I did believe she had the potential to win big.”
It probably would have dawned on Sakshi later that she fought in a weight category which had the legendary Japanese Kaori Icho. While, Sakshi stood on the podium with her bronze, to her right was Kaori with her fourth consecutive gold. At the Carioca Arena 2, Sakshi Malik transcended everything, including her own limits.