With a quizzical look, Sakshi Malik was seated in a corner of the Sports Authority of India’s wrestling training centre at Sonepat. A little away, Vinesh Phogat and Babita Kumari were winding up their warm-down routine after the morning session, surrounded by a few journalists trying to get bytes from the cousins.
It was early July and the Olympic wrestling contingent was into the final phase of preparation for Rio — soon after the Narsingh Yadav-Sushil Kumar court case was settled and before the Narsingh doping controversy erupted.
This correspondent approached Sakshi with the thought that the young wrestler shouldn’t feel bad that the attention was always on the Phogats. At the time, one felt the debutant Sakshi, who has always been in the shadow of Geeta Phogat in the 58kg category, was unlikely to feature in the medal rounds at Rio.
She had qualified late for the Games and, though she had beaten a former world champion to earn the Olympic berth in Istanbul in late May, one missed or chose to ignore the signs. Sakshi had blossomed into a medal winner for India and it seems even the wrestling federation officials had no idea about it.
Understandably so, as they were preoccupied with the Narsingh-Sushil fight and then the firefighting efforts after their “lead contender” tested positive.
Sakshi has always been good at flying under the radar. Even in Rio, when the bouts began, the focus was on Vinesh, who was competing in 48kg the same day. While Vinesh was unlucky and injured her knee, Sakshi had her fair share of tough luck, meeting the eventual silver medallist, Valeriia Koblova of Russia, in the quarterfinals.
After the loss, the feeling was Sakshi’s challenge might fizzle out in repechage due the mental and physical strain of refocusing following a loss.
Sakshi, for some reason, was never projected as a “medal hope” by the powers of Indian wrestling. In India, it is a male-dominated sport and the focus is always on the pehelwans to return with a medal. The Phogats are an exception as they, via medals and a bit of help from an upcoming movie, have managed to break the chauvinistic PR mechanism.
Sakshi hasn’t. Well, hadn’t. August 17 changed it all for her.
While training in Sonepat, she was happy to be left alone to “work hard and prepare to give her best” in Rio.
“It is my first Olympics and I am excited,” she had said. “As far as my target is concerned, I won’t say I will win a medal. I want to go there, enjoy the competition and fight to the best I can.”
Her words had reminded one of a younger Sushil Kumar ahead of the Beijing Games. There is a certain amount of stubbornness in Sushil, something we see only in champions. Sakshi has that willpower and she portrayed that on the mat in Rio, coming back from behind to win the bronze-medal bout.
With the mind driving her in the relentless pursuit of a medal, she showed a trait never seen in Indian women wrestlers before. That was supplemented by her basic yet effective technical repertoire.
Sakshi is not as technically versatile as Vinesh or Yogeshwar Dutt. She has a couple of leg takedown moves and revolves her fight around controlling the upper body of the opponent and shooting for the legs. Her technique can be easily defended. But in Rio, opponents found it hard to block her because she was attempting the techniques at the right moments, after creating openings.
This shows how far she has progressed on the tactical side of things. So, the medal was not out of the blue and it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Sakshi has focus and, more importantly, an uncluttered mind, similar to what Sushil had during his peak. Wrestling is an uncomplicated sport that way.
But, one has to commend Sakshi for maintaining simplicity of intent, given the complications and not-so-healthy fights within the fraternity.
Perhaps her low profile kept her safe. Good for India, we are off the mark in Rio.