Sakshi Malik’s manager during and after Rio 2016 throws light on how she coped with the attention, expectations and is now fighting to qualify for Tokyo 2020.
At the Summer Olympics in Rio, 2016, Sakshi Malik became India’s first woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal. The writer of this article, Suhasini Mitra, was her manager at the time and spent the following days and weeks witnessing her rise in stature and eventually her wedding. Here, she pens down a first-hand account:
On August 17, 2016, the rather quiet town of Rohtak, 66 kilometres from India’s capital New Delhi, woke up in the wee hours of the morning to Sudesh Malik’s jubilant screams. The government servant’s daughter had just etched her name in history books at the biggest sporting competition in the world.
What had seemed like a distant dream for so long, Sakshi Malik achieved that night when she became the first woman from India to win a wrestling medal at the Olympic Games.
At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Sakshi Malik pulled off a dramatic win over Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova in the repechage round of the 58 kg freestyle category.
The morning after, Bengaluru, like the rest of India, woke up to overtly patriotic headlines about her win. I, however, woke up to 21 missed calls – from my boss, from journalists and from a handful of unknown numbers; after all, one of ‘our’ athletes had just ended India’s medal drought at the 2016 Olympics.
Overnight, everyone wanted a piece of Sakshi Malik – every journalist, TV show, and event agency. Men were scampering to link themselves to Sakshi as brothers, uncles, father-figures, now that the beti (daughter) had hit upon gold (well, metaphorically).
A few weeks after Sakshi ran around the Carioca Arena in Rio with the India flag as her cape, I made my way to Rohtak from New Delhi through the glistening national highway, cutting across paddy fields next to industrial units. As our car turned into a lane, there was a huge billboard with a photo of Sakshi biting her medal, and next to that stood a posh duplex bungalow. As we opened the gate, there were scores of plastic chairs arranged haphazardly – quite evidently, there had been scores of people in and out of the Malik household.
On the cards was a high-profile shoot for Sakshi, for a popular TV programme with Shekhar Gupta, one of the biggest names of Indian journalism. We arranged for a stylist and a make-up artist because we wanted to show Sakshi as a prolific athlete who was like any other girl her age too.
While we were getting her groomed, I could not help but notice all the Olympic logos peaking from between the many soft toys, from in-between her medals, from in-between the family photographs.
“Winning the Olympic medal had become my obsession. I wanted to have the goal in front of me at all times so that I know I have to make it all costs, and even now I will not take it off, because now I want the gold,” she said.
For a girl who forayed into wrestling just to sit on a flight, Sakshi Malik had sure come a long way. “I really wanted to fly and travel and that’s why I became a wrestler. But from the day I won my first medal, it became about so much more than just that. This sport became my everything.”
Sakshi’s Olympic bronze came after 12 years of what a true-blue Indian would call Tapasya (penance). With most of her school and college spent travelling from the akhara (place of practice) to the institutes and back, I could not help but wonder if she had regrets about missing out on her teenage years. “I have absolutely no regrets. This (wrestling) is what I chose, and this is what makes me happy. I have not missed out on anything, but have only gained. Look, I have a medal today,” she said, as we made our way to our seventh flight in three days, attending various events, felicitations and interviews across the country.
In February 2017, Sakshi Malik married fellow wrestler Satyawart Kadiyan. Son of an Arjuna awardee, Satyawart and Sakshi had been dating for years. “Sakshi is a brilliant human being and the fact that she is a wrestler makes our relationship even more special,” he would say.
Their wedding in Rohtak witnessed over 1,000 guests and over 40 vegetarian food counters, but perhaps the most fascinating part was a dedicated media stand with journalists there to capture the rituals.
After her wedding though, Sakshi Malik toned down her public persona and began to focus more and more on wrestling. The fact that she married into a family of wrestlers seemed to be fitting perfectly into the larger scheme of things. I remember her mother-in-law saying how her daughter-in-law was India’s beti first, before anything else. It all seemed to be going according to plan, except it wasn’t.
Despite all her efforts, the now 62kg category wrestler is finding it tough to maintain the intensity, given the four-year Olympic cycle. This became most apparent after the World Championships 2019. “It’s not easy (to maintain the same level) but I am working on my shortcomings to get ready and achieve Olympic glory again. Two qualifiers (one each in March and April) are remaining and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to qualify in the Asian Continental Qualification Tournament,” Sakshi admitted to a leading daily.
In no mood to give up, the grappler is now making plans for high altitude training soon after the South Asian Games in her quest to regain Olympic glory.
From creating history to now struggling to be a part of the talk, Sakshi’s journey has not quite panned out as a fairy tale. But if her medal-winning bout is anything to go by, Haryana’s beti does have the knack of winning the battle after being set back by the odds.