Haryana wrestler, Sakshi Malik made India proud by winning a bronze in the 58 kg freestyle wrestling event. Her medal ends India’s dry spell at the Rio Olympics.
Her participation in the Rio Olympics was fairly unexpected. For years, despite her immense talent, she played second fiddle to India’s most famous female wrestler, Geeta Phogat. When she got a chance to qualify for the Olympics this May, she grabbed it with both hands.
Sakshi Malik, known for her aggressive style of wrestling, fought five bouts to win India’s first medal – a bronze – at Rio 2016.
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What led to Sakshi’s victory?
- Sakshi defeated Sweden’s Malin Johanna Mattson 5-4 in the Women’s Freestyle 58 kg qualification match. She fought back from a 0-4 down to a 5-4 win.
- Malik then defeated Mariana Cherdivara Esanu of the Republic of Moldova and advanced into the quarter finals.
- She then lost 9-2 to Valeria Koblova of Russia in the quarter-final. Malik led for some time, and stayed true to her attacking style of play. However, the Russian made a firm move around Malik’s neck, using her legs.
- But repechage was still a possibility, and this is where Malik made a strong comeback.
- Sakshi looked in total control and at her attacking best as she thrashed Mongolia’s Orkhon Purevdorj by 12-3 in her first bout of repechage.
- By winning the next bout, Sakshi Malik bagged the bronze, becoming India’s first decorated Olympian at Rio.
Why is Sakshi’s achievement extraordinary?
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- The context: India was yet to open its medal tally at this year’s Olympics. The athletes who were touted to win a medal failed to do so.
- Vinesh Phogat, India’s biggest medal hope in women’s wrestling, was in prime form but an injury forced her to exit the competition.
- Sakshi had to fight five bouts during the day to get on the podium.
- India was losing the match: In the Bronze medal match, Sakshi was trailing 5-0 and the Kyrgyz wrestler seemed to be in control and heading for a win. It seemed like India would again have to contend with the fourth position. In her qualifying round, Sakshi had come back from a 0-4 to win the match with a 5-4. Could she do the same in her final match as well?
- She did it: At the end of a grueling day, she should have been exhausted. With the match slipping away from her, she should have become desperate. But this tenacious wrestler from Haryana summoned an extra reserve of strength from deep within her.
- With her victory, she became the fourth woman sportsperson from India to win an Olympic medal after weightlifter Karnam Malleshwari (2000, Sydney), boxer MC Mary Kom (2012, London) and badminton ace Saina Nehwal (2012, London).
- But most importantly, she became the first Indian Olympian in Rio to win a medal. It almost seemed that she had single-handedly taken up the responsibility to end the wait.
After her win, she wrapped herself in the national flag, kneeled down and sank her head onto the very floor she had just conquered.
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When did Sakshi qualify for Rio 2016?
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- Sakshi competes in the 58kg freestyle category which has been dominated in India by Geeta Phogat, the illustrious wrestler from the first family of Indian women wrestling.
- Though Sakshi was winning consistently, she was known as the wrestler who was second best to Geeta, who, in 2012, became the country’s first woman wrestler to win a world championship medal and qualify for the London Olympics.
- In December 2015, Sakshi defeated Geeta in the Pro Wrestling League and then at the national trials in April 2016, she dominated Geeta 8-1 to become a part of the Asian Olympic qualifier team for Astana.
- Geeta was still in the running for the qualifier; however, for reasons unknown, she chose not to turn up for a bronze medal match in another Olympic qualifying tournament. For this ‘indiscipline,’ she was replaced by Sakshi.
- Sakshi put up an impressive show, clinching the silver medal and securing a quota for India for the Rio Games, and beating 2012 world champion, Lan Zhang of China, along the way.
Where is Sakshi from?
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- Sakshi comes from Mokha village near Rohtak, Haryana and started training for the sport at Chotu Ram Stadium Wrestling Academy in Rohtak.
- She started wrestling in 2004 when she was 12. Since there were not enough girls to train with, certainly none with her caliber and motivation, she used to train with boys.
- Sakshi had won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (2014) and a bronze medal at the Asian Championships (2015).
Who is Sakshi’s inspiration?
- Sakshi had been inspired by Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt. “Ever since Sushil and Yogeshwar bagged medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics, India has built a reputation of being a wrestling power. Everyone takes us seriously now,” she said.
- She is especially fond of Sushil: “Sushil Kumar is a champion wrestler and my idol. He is a very humble person and boosts my confidence always.” While Sushil could not qualify for the Rio Olympics, he should take heart from the fact that he has done the best he could to inspire India’s next set of champions.
In an interview with Sportskeeda, earlier this year, she had said:
“Singing the national anthem in a stadium outside India is the proudest feeling one can ever have. Be it personal goals, milestones, achievements, everything else takes a back seat.There is nothing like winning a medal there for your country.”
And here she is, winning a medal for India at the highest of all stages, when India needed it the most.
How did Sakshi train for her win?
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- Sakshi and the other two female wrestlers in India’s Rio team, Vinesh and Babita, all hail from Haryana, a conservative state when it comes to letting women venture outside their homes.
- Sakshi recalls how boys would remind her that she should not be taking up wrestling.”It hurt a little and I wondered why people said such mean things, especially when I was so young, and since it made me doubt myself,” she had said in an interview before arriving in Rio.
- The state had a culture for wrestling, but women’s participation was limited and remained uncelebrated till Geeta Phogat, Babita’s older sister, won gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games and became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics, two years later.
- Sakshi had the benefit of their parents’ support to pursue their dreams.
Now, with her win, Sakshi is sure to inspire the next generation of Olympians in India.
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