Growing up together as wrestlers, they were fierce rivals. Now, Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik are best friends, thanks to a timely truce called by their parents and coaches.
And none has benefitted more than Indian wrestling.
Both are now attempting a giant leap, aiming for a medal when at one stage even qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics did not seem realistic for their respective teams.
Anshu’s coach Jagdeesh and father Dharamvir wanted that the ‘kid’ be prepared for the 2024 Paris Games. The same was thought about Sonam, by coach Ajmer Malik and father Raj Malik.
But they surprised everyone by exceeding the expectations when they qualified for the Tokyo Games, leaving established stars Pooja Dhanda and Sakshi Malik to worry about their reputation since they were expected to take the 57kg and 62kg spots, respectively, in the Indian team.
Before that happened, Anshu and Sonam were putting their wits against each other at the state and national level.
They used to compete in the same category — either 56kg or 60kg — and always one denied the other the title.
It led to mutual animosity not only between them but also between their families. Dharamvir and Raj came to blows on more than one occasion when they thought that their ‘kid deserved to win.
It did not last long, though.
“They both are good. We thought that if they remain in the same category, one of them will miss out on representing India despite having the capability. So we decided to change their categories,” said Anshu’s father Dharamvir.
“Anshu stayed in 60kg and Sonam competed in 56kg. That was the best option for her and both became world champions (Cadet in 2017) after that,” he added.
Asked about this interesting past, Anshu, who trained at the famous Nidani Sports School, only smiled.
Sonam said, “We are like sisters now. We cherish each other’s success.”
The bond only grew stronger when they became room mates at the national camp in Lucknow.
For the last 18 months or so both of them have been making a splash with some terrific results not only at the national but also at the international level.
In six international events on the senior circuit, Anshu has won five medals, including a gold at the Asian Championship in Almaty.
Apart from the friendship, fearlessness is one trait they both share. When asked if she was nervous while taking on established seniors in 57kg, the 19-year-old offered a firm “no”.
“I was never scared of the seniors. I was just waiting to take them on. I always wanted to win those medal, have the feel of the podium. Even at school, I wanted to come first,” she said, sharing proudly that she scored 82 per cent marks in her senior secondary level exams.
Another big trait that has yielded Anshu success is her positivity.
“I am mentally very strong. I don’t get perturbed even if someone makes a negative comment about me or tells me that I won’t be able to do well against strong rivals. It does not affect me.
“Also, I have been surrounded by very positive people. No one tells me that I can’t achieve this or that. Everyone instils that confidence in me that everything is doable.
“That’s a big plus for me. There is no negativity around me.”
Anshu feels that international competitions have taught her that smart work needs to replace hard work at some stage.
Sonam grabbed eyeballs by defeating Sakshi Malik four times before qualifying for the Tokyo Games with a silver medal at the Asian Qualifiers.
She began to impress at local ‘dangals’ where she started beating stronger opponents like Divya Kakran. Whether it was Ritu Malik, Sarita Mor or Nisha or Sudesh, Sonam did not care for reputations.
She competed fiercely against the big names of Indian women wrestling.
“We just wanted to assess where she was against these girls but she kept pulling of big performances,” said Ajmer.
She had not even played junior level and now he wanted his ward to challenge the best in the country.
Ajmer shares that it was a task to convince the national federation that the two-time world cadet champion was ready for the plunge.
It is rare that someone who has not had the exposure even at the junior level, is claimed to be ready for competitions at the highest level.
After much persuasion throughout 2019, the WFI allowed Sonam to compete in trials for the Rome Ranking series event in January 2020.
“After the trials were over and Sonam had earned berth in the Indian team with a win over Sakshi Malik, Neta ji (WFI President BB Sharan) said, ‘it would have been a big mistake if we had not agreed on Sonam’s appearance in the trials’,” Sonam’s coach Ajmer said.
“The WFI and many others had argued that she would get injured since she lacks experience. They said we will jeopardise her career by doing this, but we kept cajoling the federation.”