Women's wrestling hit the headlines in India with the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The unprecedented story of a gaggle of sisters from the Phogat family, who had battled social taboos in conservative, mofussil Haryana, to play what is regarded as the most masculine of sports caught the eye of the press not just at home, but across the world. For close to a decade now, the daughters and nieces of Mahavir Phogat, Geeta, Babita, Vinesh, and now the younger cousins Priyanka and Sangeeta, have made the top stories in Indian women's wrestling a family affair.
For Sakshi Malik, the challenges were much the same as her illustrious seniors. From a village in Rohtak district, Malik had to contend with reluctance at home first. Her mother was dead against the pre-teen from joining an akhara and spending her days surrounded by strangers—mostly boys and men—of all ages.
But Malik's stubborn streak was as strong then as it is now. She went to the Chotu Ram stadium in Rohtak and coach Ishwar Dahiya took her under his wing. Slowly, steadily, she worked on her body and mind, developing technique and strength. It was when Sushil Kumar won his first Olympic medal that Malik began dreaming of the impossible. Sushil was her idol and she decided then to dedicate every fibre of her being to emulating the man who she had modelled herself on.
But Malik had another major hurdle to contend with. She fought in the same weight category as Geeta, the most accomplished, confident and recognised woman wrestler in the history of the nation. To make to the international stage—a nation can only enter one wrestler in every weight category—she would first have to prove to the entire wrestling establishment that she was better than Geeta.
In a firmament that is built on old-school dynamics—respect, seniority, lineage—circumventing the rigid hierarchy was as much of a consideration as developing her skills on the mat. Geeta was always number one. No one will understand this better than Narsingh Yadav, who had to go up against the colossal Sushil for the lone berth in the men's 74kg category. Despite having earned that quota berth for India, Yadav has had to fight on the mat, in court and even (apparently) in the dining hall of the SAI Centre where his food was allegedly adulterated in a last-ditch attempt to have him thrown out of the Olympics.
Malik's struggle, fortunately, did not descend to those murky depths. Hers is a straight-up case of single-minded determination. Instead of becoming frustrated with the relative lack of opportunity, Malik kept her head down and concentrated on training. The chance to practice with a wrestler for whom she has enormous respect and still calls didi was a victory in itself. Malik believed her time would come. And it did.
Hers is a straight-up case of single-minded determination.
After Geeta failed to make the most of the first couple of qualifying opportunities for Rio, there was a trial session at the national wrestling camp in Sonepat ahead of the final Olympic Qualifying tournament in Turkey. Malik had already bested Geeta in the marginally successful Pro-Wrestling League in December 2015. A repeat in Sonepat gave Malik the opportunity to finally prove to her teammates, coaches, family and the media, that she deserved to be in the reckoning to represent India.
Malik competed in a category that included some exceptional wrestlers. Japan's Kaori Icho has been a dominant force in the 58kg class since virtually the turn of the century with 10 World Championships and three Olympic golds. She was the outright favourite for the event and her closest competitor was Russia's European champion and world silver medallist, Valeria Koblova. Malik, comparatively inexperienced, was not considered a serious contender. And the draw didn't do her any favours either. In the very first round, Malik had to beat Sweden's Johanna Mattson, ranked among the top five wrestlers in their weight.
What has come through from all the media attention Malik has received since her win in the repechage final last night, is the stubbornness with which she approaches the mat, and the sundry challenges life throws up. Malik has remained a quiet, respectful understudy to Geeta for years, always seeking to learn and improve, rather than gripe or complain.
Not the most technically gifted wrestler, the game plan set for Malik by her coach Jagdish Malik seemed pretty clear. The plan was to use her superior aerobic fitness at exactly the right time to hurt her opponents beyond recovery. The plan worked to perfection in each one of her bouts except the loss to the vastly superior Koblova. Malik often found herself at par or behind at the end of the first round. But, as her opponents tired, she found the opening and exploited them to devastating effect.
Slower, and possessing less upper-body strength than several of her opponents, Jagdish realised the only chance for his young wrestler was to go for the feet and score on the big takedowns. So it was that Malik's training focussed on aerobic fitness and those big-scoring takedowns. It is not often that Indian wrestling has been successful in employing these calculated tactics. With Malik, it was a case of her innate simplicity and willingness to follow the coach's instructions that paid dividend. That, and a massive heart that just refused to take no for an answer.