India had sent its largest-ever contingent of 117 athletes to the 2016 Rio Olympics and two of them managed to bring home Olympic medals - PV Sindhu won silver while Sakshi Malik bagged a bronze medal, making her the first female Indian wrestler to step onto a podium at the Games.
In fact, it was the first time in India’s history that its medal haul at a single Olympics was won only by women.
Sakshi Malik knows a thing or two about how the level of preparation required to win a medal and she believed the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics could see Indian wrestlers return with yet more reward.
“I cannot predict a number but can say with certainty that this will be the most successful Olympics for Indian wrestlers,” the Olympic medallist told the Olympic Channel in an exclusive chat.
Vinesh Phogat, Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia and Ravi Kumar Dahiya are already eligible to grapple at the Tokyo Olympics, making it the first time Indian wrestlers have won four Olympic quotas.
Malik’s bronze run in the 58 kg weight category at Rio 2016 meant that she returned with a medal in her first attempt at the Games and the experience may prove invaluable in training for the Tokyo Olympics for her.
“It was a life-changing moment to win a medal on a platform as big as the Olympics. That tournament taught me the ins and outs of Olympic wrestling - how to train and qualify, which will keep me in good stead for the next one,” she revealed.
“I’m also proud of the fact that it inspired more women to take up the sport and it brought a positive change in society.”
Dealing with a downturn in form
Sakshi Malik, who has made a shift to the 62kg category, had a subdued start to the year, falling to two-time Cadet champion Sonam Malik in the national trials, which saw the latter make it to Indian wrestlers’ squad for the Asian Wrestling Championships held at home.
However, Sonam Malik could not garner a medal at the event, prompting the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) to hold another round of trials but Sakshi Malik could not make the most of it as she lost to her younger compatriot once again.
The 27-year-old had worked hard on changing her technique and stance but it had not yielded results and she was honest enough to take it on the chin. “Look, no athlete enjoys a long period at the top,” expressed Sakshi Malik.
“There are always ups and downs in a sportsperson’s life and this is just a down time for me. I am working hard on my weaknesses and altering my technique, something I have avoided before, and I hope that my luck changes in the next few months.”
The effects of the lockdown
The coronavirus pandemic has force-stopped all sporting activities, with the Asian Olympic qualifiers for wrestling postponed indefinitely and the summer Olympics also deferred.
The unexpected break has created a void in athletes’ lives, who are unable to carry out proper training after being stuck at home and Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik is no different.
“Wrestling is one of those sports where you need a partner to train with, so I am helpless in that regard currently. I do a bit of training at home and maintain physical fitness by working out at my akhada (wrestling pit),” she admitted.
“It is important to watch your diet - we work hard to train for the Olympics and it will be a tough ask to maintain form for a year but that is the nature of our jobs.”
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics may be a blessing in disguise for the 2016 Olympics bronze medallist and her fighting spirit and attitude to keep challenging herself will work in her favour in a bid to grapple at a second-consecutive Games and try and step up to the podium once more.