Overnight, Kashish Malik did a 180-degree turn on the life she was supposed to lead. From aspiring to become an IAS officer, one of the toughest but also one of the most secure careers in India, to throwing herself into the chaos of being a taekwondo athlete in India.
Taekwondo is far from being a popular sport in the country and there is hardly any roadmap in place for a youngster to start planning a career in it. That, for Malik, was part of the appeal.
“I took it up because, first of all, taekwondo is an Olympic sport. Secondly, it hasn’t been highlighted in our country. I did not want to go into a sport in which someone from India had already made a massive impact. I didn’t want to become a second Mary Kom or Saina Nehwal. I wanted to become the first one in my sport, and lead the way.”
There probably was always a warrior in Malik that wanted to burst out. The story goes that when she was 14 years old, she took on a boy, much bigger than her, from her school in a fight because he had said something offensive.
Eventually, their PE teacher, who also happened to be a taekwondo coach, had to break them up. Impressed by her spirit though, he invited her to spar with his students at his taekwondo academy. “I lost but I fought well.”
The PE teacher also encouraged her to take up the sport. Taekwondo is a niche martial art, which originated in Korea, that focuses on kicks.
“I knew the sport wasn’t very popular in India,” she said. “Someone needs to make a revolution in the sport: like what Sania (Mirza) did for tennis, Saina did for badminton or Mary Kom did for boxing. He asked me, ‘Why can’t you be the one?’
“I went back home and thought about it. I changed my path overnight, made my decision and told my parents that I am going to make taekwondo my career.
“Also I am lucky that my parents supported my decision. They believed in me. They also knew I would have to struggle a lot because we don’t have federations, we don’t have facilities or financial support. It was tough. But I wanted to do one thing in my life that I would be proud of. And if taekwondo gave me the opportunity to represent my country, be it Asian Games or World Championships or Olympics, I was happy to take it.”
Malik currently trains at the Peace Taekwondo Academy, under former World Champion Sayed Hassan Rezay, who fled war-torn Afghanistan and has made India his home.
Even though the coaching, she believes, is top-notch, the country’s indifference towards the sport shows up in the small details. For example, the students at the academy all share one pair of chest and head guards.
“Guards are important part of the sport, they make it completely transparent,” Malik said. “There are sensors in the chest and head guard, and unless you hit them with a certain amount power you won’t get points. So it is completely objective scoring, referees don’t give points in taekwondo.
“The guard weighs about 1.5kg. I had never trained with them so when I went for my first international competition it was a bit uncomfortable. But over the years I have got used to it. These guards are very expensive, each one costs about Rs. 4 lakh. Even though we don’t have access to them during training, we have to be mindful about how much force is required so it registers on the sensor and we get a point.”
“But I don’t think about it going into a bout,” said Malik with all the bravado that seems a pre-requisite for getting into a combat sport. “If I focus on the fact that my opponent has access to all the best facilities and will thus be better prepared than me, I will lose the match even before I get onto the mat.”
In her first international competition, the 2018 Fujairah Open in UAE, Malik returned with a silver medal.
At the South Asian Games in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2019, Malik won the gold medal in the 57kg and under category. Currently ranked 67 in the world in her weight category, the Delhi-based Malik is hoping to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics.
She is hoping to compete at the Asian qualification tournament scheduled in Amman, Jordan in March and become the first Indian to qualify for the mega event in taekwondo. Malik believes she has more than a fighting chance to blaze a trail.