How Sakshi Malik landed India's first-ever medal in women's wrestling

Fighting against the tide, the Rohtak girl chose the Olympic stage to emerge from the shadows of her much-celebrated compatriot.

Whenever there’s a conversation about women’s wrestling in India, Sakshi Malik’s heroics at the 2016 Olympics is remembered fondly.

And rightly so.

If Geeta Phogat’s gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought India’s women’s wrestling to the forefront, it was Sakshi Malik who helped them seal a place in the Indian sporting folklore.

But the 27-year-old’s road to the Olympic podium was anything but an easy one. She was not even supposed to be at the Games.

Competing alongside the face of women’s wrestling in the country in the 58kg category, Sakshi Malik for long was second fiddle to her much-celebrated compatriot -- Geeta Phogat.

Building up to Rio 2016, it was Geeta who was expected to be the flagbearer for women’s wrestling when the Olympics came by. But before the Games, she had to earn the right to compete.

Barely seen as a medal contender going into Rio 2016, Indian wrestler Sakshi Malik rose to the occasion to deliver India their first medal at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: UWW
Barely seen as a medal contender going into Rio 2016, Indian wrestler Sakshi Malik rose to the occasion to deliver India their first medal at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: UWWBarely seen as a medal contender going into Rio 2016, Indian wrestler Sakshi Malik rose to the occasion to deliver India their first medal at the 2016 Olympics. Photo: UWW

But an off day at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships meant that the Indian wrestler had to rely on the Olympic Qualifying event in Mongolia for a place at the Rio Games.

The surprising call-up

In Mongolia though, the story was no different. Geeta bowed out in the early rounds, to lose out on an opportunity to fight for the two quota places available at the meet.

However, her troubles wouldn’t end there. Geeta’s decision to forfeit the repechage bout in Mongolia wouldn’t sit well with the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) who would then provisionally suspend the wrestler and slot Sakshi Malik for the final qualifying event in Turkey.

A surprising call-up with a chance to compete at the biggest sporting extravaganza up for grabs, the stakes wouldn’t get any higher when Sakshi Malik embarked on her Olympic journey. “I knew I had to do my best at the last qualifiers in Turkey or else I would have to wait for four more years,” she would later tell The Quint.

But the Rohtak girl barely let the pressure tell as she eased past her competition at the final qualifying event in Istanbul, Turkey before beating China’s Zhang Lan on criteria in the semifinal to clinch the quota place for Rio 2016.

Sakshi Malik lights up Rio 2016

Though the Indian wrestler qualified for her maiden Olympics in 2016, Sakshi Malik was flew under the radar in terms of being a medal contender for the country.

Sakshi MALIK (IND) df. Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), 8-5

Sakshi MALIK (IND) df. Aisuluu TYNYBEKOVA (KGZ), 8-5

The nation had their eyes fixed on the likes of Abhinav Bindra, Jitu Rai, Sania Mirza, Vinesh Phogat and Saina Nehwal, while a young Sakshi Malik was expected to absorb the experience and build on it going forward in her career.

But with the shooters failing to live up to the billing and the tennis stars enduring a difficult time, the nation was soon watching with prayers and hopes at a discipline that had guaranteed medals in the previous two editions -- wrestling.

Having seen her mate Vinesh Phogat being stretchered out, now the pressure was surely on Sakshi Malik to deliver. “Thoda pressure tha. Mood bhi thoda down tha (There was pressure. The mood wasn’t good either),” Sakshi would later tell Deccan Herald recalling the biggest night of her career. “But I chose not to think about anything other than my bout.”

The pressure was evident in the way the Indian wrestler went about her business in the 58kg category at the Carioca Arena. Some close wins in the initial rounds were followed by a 2-9 loss at the hands of Russian Valeria Koblova in the quarter-finals.

But with Koblova making the final, Sakshi Malik was handed a second shot at the medal through the repechage rounds. And this time she was not to falter.

Mongolia’s Pürevdorjiin Orkhon was swept aside in no time as the Indian wrestler set up a bronze medal bout against the then Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan.

A comeback to cherish

Up against a technically gifted player, Sakshi Malik knew that she would have had to be on top of her game from the first minute if she had to get something from the ‘all-or-nothing’ bout.

But the Indian wrestler’s defensive approach proved to be too costly for her as Tynybekova would race to a comfortable 5-0 lead in the opening round.

But just when it looked like India’s wait for an Olympic medal in Rio would extend further, Sakshi Malik took matters into her own hands and produced one of the finest comebacks.

Going for her opponent’s legs, Sakhi Malik inflicted a series of takedowns to rally into the bout and draw parity at 5-5.

But the Indian wrestler knew that was never to be enough as Tynybekova still enjoyed a slender advantage on criteria after having scored with a 4-point takedown early in the bout.

However, with just seconds to in the match, Sakshi Malik would wriggle out of an attempted takedown to expose her opponent once again with a freak move to seal the bronze. A move that stunned herself and Tynybekova alike.

Sakshi Malik jumped with joy in the middle of the mat and moments later she was hauled up on the shoulders of her coach while she carried an Indian flag over her to celebrate.

A nation comprising over a billion celebrated back home. Sakshi Malik in her moment, literally and figuratively, had been flying the flag for India at Rio 2016.

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