Sakshi Malik: In search of the Midas touch

Rio made her the face of women’s wrestling in India, the Rohtak wrestler has to live with the weight of expectation

By Naveen Peter ·

Talk about wrestling in India, and not surprisingly, the conversation will naturally turn to Haryana. The state in northern India boasts of a rich tradition in the sport and has produced some of the nation’’s top wrestlers over the years.

Be it the famous Udey Chand, the first-ever Indian to win a World Championships medal, or the likes of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, who took the world by storm over the past decade with their Olympic laurels,

Haryana has helped Indian wrestling rise to greater heights over the years. Moreover, this trend also helped break boundaries in society and give India their first-ever gold medallist in women’s wrestling.

While it was Geeta Phogat who went on to achieve this breakthrough with her gold medal-winning performance at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, it was not until the Rio 2016 Olympics that women’s wrestling in India achieved its ultimate goal.

Rising from the shadows of her established compatriot, a certain Sakshi Malik went on to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in the discipline.

Against the tide

While many know about Sakshi, India’s first-ever Olympic medallist, not many know of the road that the fighter in her had to take to reach the pinnacle.

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Born in Rohtak to Sukhbir Malik, a bus conductor and Sudesh, a supervisor at a local health clinic, Sakshi was drawn into wrestling seeing her grandfather Badlu Ram, a known face in the akhara circles.

But despite her parents backing her aspirations to follow her dream, the young Sakshi would find it difficult to change the mindset of village elders as she started her journey at the wrestling academy at the Sir Chotu Ram Stadium.

At the academy too, things were stacked against Sakshi. The skewed gender ratio in the state and the prevailing mindset in her town meant that the academy saw boys outnumber the girls by a handsome margin.

The difference was so lopsided that Sakshi would barely find a girl in her weight category to spar with in training, forcing her to join the boys to hone her skills.

While she struggled to find a partner to train with, the academy gave her a fitting coach in Ishwar Singh Dahiya. Under Dahiya, Sakhi would not only improve as a wrestler but also become a confident youngster who would soon take the world head-on.

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Sakshi Malik won a silver medal in the 58kg category

One step at a time

The relation turned out to be golden for Sakshi as she won her first Sub-Junior Nationals in 2006 and three years later took her game to the international stage and won a silver in the 59kg category at the Asian Junior Wrestling Championships in Manila. 

A year later, she would take her game a notch higher with a bronze medal-winning performance in the 59kg category at the Junior World Championships. But it wasn’t until 2014 that Sakshi stole the attention of the mainstream media.

Heading into the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the Rohtak wrestler was oozing with confidence especially after her win at the Dave Schultz International competition just ahead of the Games. The exposure helped her as Sakshi managed a silver at the Glasgow Games, thereby establishing herself as one of the prime contenders for the Olympics in two years time.

The fortunate one

Sakshi’s road to Rio was never going to be an easy one, especially with the face of women’s wrestling in India, Geeta, being in her weight category. 

Building up to the 2015 World Championships and the Olympics thereon, Geeta was expected to be the flagbearer for women’s wrestling in the country, but an off day at the Worlds meant that she had to rely on the Olympic Qualifying event in Mongolia for a place at the Rio Games.

A provisional ban on Geeta Phogat meant Sakhi Malik had a shot at Olympic qualification

In Mongolia, though, Geeta could barely get hold of the competition as she was ousted in the early rounds, thus losing out on a chance to fight for the two quota places up for grabs. However, her decision to forfeit the repechage bout proved costly as the federation provisionally suspended the wrestler and slotted Sakshi for the final qualifying event in Turkey.

Sakshi, however, didn’t let the drama get to her as she made the most of the opportunity with a fine show at the Istanbul competition and punched her ticket for Rio.

Magic in Rio

While getting to Rio was a journey filled with surprises for Sakshi, at the Games, the young wrestler ensured that she paid back the belief with a stellar show that landed her a bronze at the Carioca Arena.

Returning home as a champion in her own right, Sakshi was honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting award in the country, soon after and in 2017, she received the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award, for her continued contribution to the sport.

Downward spiral?

While the Rio Olympics were the highlight to date of Sakshi’s career, the wrestler has struggled to reach those dizzy heights ever since.

The Indian has been a shadow of herself at the major competitions, finishing a disappointing fifth and 12th at the 2018 Asian Games and the 2018 World Championships respectively. The current year too hasn’t been kind to her as she’s yet to come up with dominant performances in any of the competition she’s turned up at.

Nevertheless, Sakshi will be hoping to change the tide and bring her best to the fore when she begins her World Championships campaign in Nur-Sultan in a few days time.