Bouts against Sakshi forged Sonam’s Tokyo route
- Ajmer was preparing her for the 2024 Olympics. Sonam believed she had a few years left before breaking into the national side, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sakshi and Vinesh Phogat. Now the sudden change of plans was baffling for Sonam.
Ajmer Malik recalls the moment last year when he told trainee Sonam Malik that she has a big fight coming up—against Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik—in the national selection trials for the Asian Championships.
“Her face turned pale, as if she had seen a ghost,” says coach Ajmer.
Sonam, with two gold medals (2017, 2019) and bronze (2018) at the Cadet World Championships had world-beating potential, yet she was just a teenage rookie. Ajmer was preparing her for the 2024 Olympics. Sonam believed she had a few years left before she could break into the national side, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sakshi and Vinesh Phogat. The sudden change of plans baffled Sonam.
It took long hours for Ajmer to cajole Sonam, make her understand that she was ready to fight against the best in India. He spent more time fighting Sonam’s case with the Wrestling Federation of India, to plead that she be put in the trials. They felt Sonam should be given more time at the junior level and that a loss against an Olympic medallist could be devastating for the youngster.
Deep within, Ajmer made his calculations. He was preparing to fast-track Sonam into national reckoning with bouts against Sakshi. After watching Sonam easily beat in local competitions some of her rivals who were in the national squad, or on the fringes of national selection, Ajmer believed she was ready.
In her first showdown with Sakshi, Sonam made a stunning comeback from 2-10. She chipped away with points, and with seconds left on the clock, executed a four-point throw to claim victory. Since that trial in January last year, Sonam has faced Sakshi on three more occasions, winning each time, including in the final of the National Championships this year. Sonam has made a resounding claim again and again that she is India’s best wrestler in the 62kg category, earning the right to contest for an Olympics berth at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Kazakhstan.
At Almaty on Saturday, Sonam displayed the same mental toughness and composure. She fought through knee pain to script a sensational turnaround against Asian Championships silver medallist Ayaulym Kassymova of Kazakhstan.
In the blink of an eye, Sonam found herself in strong clutches of Kassymova, who executed a takedown and gut wrench, seemingly in a hurry to finish the fight. Sonam somehow wriggled out of her grasp, but had conceded six points, and worst still, had hurt her right knee. Holding her knee, she winced in pain on the edge of the mat. After a medical timeout, Sonam was ready to fight through pain with the Olympic spot on the line.
All those fights against the seasoned Sakshi, where she made up for deficits with calculated moves, at times with instinctive wrestling, had prepared the teenager for the big match.
She scored with takedowns while carefully negotiating Kassymova’s strong arms. At the end of the first period, Sonam was at level terms with the Kazakh and had the momentum going. Three more points in the second period gave her a 9-6 lead–having reeled in nine points in one go. Sonam had 40 secs on the clock and she defended well. Coming off the mat, she hugged national coach Kuldeep Malik. Tears welled up.
“She was in pain. The doctors told her during the bout it is her call, whether she wants to continue. She was brave enough to go out there and book an Olympic spot for the country,” said Kuldeep.
Understandably, she gave a walkover in the final against Jia Long of China, whom she beat in the first bout of the round robin format. She then defeated Hsin Ping Pai of Taipei with a technical fall (11-0).
“The job was done and we did not want to take a risk. We have to see whether she can compete in the Asian Championships next week,” said Kuldeep.
In her fights against Sakshi, Sonam was also learning the art of bouncing back in a fledgling career. She has grown in confidence with every bout against Sakshi, finding openings at crucial times, showing intelligence on the mat and using attacks that have even left her personal coach Ajmer surprised.
“She used certain moves she doesn’t generally use in training, but when she sees an opportunity she is able to execute them. This shows she is thinking on the mat,” says Ajmer.
“In her first bout against Sakshi, I told Sonam she had nothing to lose. ‘This is not a competition for you. Treat it just like a training session. We are still preparing for the 2024 Olympics.’ I know if she is able to execute what she does in training, she will give her a good fight. I just wanted to test her and it was a great opportunity to know her level,” says Ajmer.
Ajmer, a retired Army subedar and former wrestler, has been training Sonam since she was 11. He had put all his retirement benefits to start the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Sports Academy in Madina village, Sonipat. Ajmer and Sonam’s father Rajendra Malik, also a former wrestler, are friends who could never realise their dreams.
“We had limited means. So, we could not do much. I competed in the nationals championships from the Army but had to stop wrestling after a knee surgery. In Sonam, we saw those dreams again. She is talented and we have the means to take her to the top level,” says Ajmer.
Ask Sonam about Sakshi and she turns into a fan. “Sakshi di is my idol. I saw her on TV at the Rio Olympics winning the medal for India (bronze). I was very nervous in the first bout, but my coach sir told me ‘you have nothing to lose, just give your best,” says Sonam, 18.
“Now we know each other so well. Still, every time it seems like a new bout. Sakshi di surprised me in the nationals with her attacks, but I was able to counter,” says Sonam.
Though Sonam has virtually ended Sakshi's dream of a second Olympic medal, the senior wrestler is generous enough to help the teenager at the national camp.
“I often spar with her and she tells me if I do something wrong,” says Sonam.