On Wednesday evening when Anshu Malik, 20, became the first-ever Indian woman wrestler to enter the final of a World Wrestling Championship with an 11-0 win over 2020 European silver medallist Solomiaa Vynnyk of Ukraine in the 57 Kg category, her father Dharamveer Malik could hardly control his emotions.
Four Indian women wrestlers have won medals at the Worlds, all of them being bronze. Geeta Phogat (2012), Babita Phogat (2012), Pooja Dhanda (2018) and Vinesh Phogat (2019) have made the nation proud but Anshu has an opportunity to go a step ahead.
Two-time Olympic champion Risako Kawai is one of the big names missing from the championships, but Anshu won’t have it easy in the final against Tokyo Games bronze medallist Helen Maroulis of America.
The realisation of what his daughter could pull off has dawned on Dharamveer, who was a source of strength when Anshu returned without a medal from the Olympics.
Having represented the Indian junior wrestling team in the 1990’s, Dharamveer was forced to retire following a knee injury. He had experienced how crushing failure can be. So Malik made sure his daughter’s shoulders never drooped even when things didn’t go her way.
When Anshu got home from the Tokyo Olympics in August, her first Summer Games, Dharamveer ensured his daughter was welcomed like a champion.
“Whenever I returned from international competitions without winning a medal, I would always feel dejected. But that has not been the case in Anshu’s career. I have always told her that a loss also teaches one something. She has put the loss against the Russian in the Olympics behind her. To see her become the only Indian wrestler to reach the final of world championships makes me a little emotional,” Dharamveer says.
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“It feels good to reach the final here. What I could not achieve in the Olympics, I have achieved here. The time after the Olympic loss was a bit tough as things did not go as I had aimed and could not achieve the level at Tokyo which I had prepared for. I also suffered from an elbow injury and trained in pain during the last one month or so. But my focus was to achieve what I could not achieve in Olympics. I was thinking to give my 100 percent here and fought every bout with this thought. It will be the same in the final against the American,” Anshu told UWW.
Whichever the colour of Anshu’s medal on Thursday, it will get a pride of place at home. “Her medal will adorn the wall of our house like her other medals,” Dharamveer, who represented India in the World Cadet Championships in 1995, adds.
Hailing from Nidani village in Jind district in Haryana, a place famous for producing wrestlers and boxers, a young Anshu would take to wrestling after seeing her brother Shubham train at the CBSM Sports School at the village in 2012.
The Haryana youngster would win a silver medal in the Asian Junior Championships in Taiwan in 2016 and a bronze in World Cadet Championships in Georgia in the same year. A year later she would win the world cadet title.
Seeing that his daughter had potential, Dharamveer, who owns six acres of farmland, would also shuttle between Lucknow and Sonepat, venues of national camps, to be by Anshu’s side.
“Whatever I could do, I did for Anshu’s love for wrestling. There were some hard times too but seeing her win would make me forget all those days,” he says.
The youngster would train under coach Jagdeesh Sheoran at the CBSM Sports School. The coach says she is a quick learner.
“During training, Anshu would make mental notes of various moves like Bhandhaj and Kheech apart from Gatta Pakad and would also try minute variations in these attacks,” Sheoran recalls.
She became the third Indian female wrestler to seal the Tokyo Olympics quota with a 12-2 win over Shokida Akhmedova in the Asia Oceania Olympic qualifier at Almaty, Kazakhstan.
But she had suffered a back injury during the ranking series in Rome. At Tokyo, Anshu lost to double world championship medallist and eventual silver medallist Iryna Kurachkina of Belarus in the first round before losing to Rio Olympics silver medallist Valeria Koblova of ROC 1-5 in the repechage round.
The Russian eventually lost to Bulgaria’s Evelina Nikolova in the bronze medal match, a wrestler whom Anshu had defeated earlier in Mattio Pellicone Ranking Series in Rome this year.
“Against Koblova, Anshu had managed to defend till the last minute of the bout. In the last 40 seconds of the bout, letting Koblova make a leg attack cost Anshu. After the Olympics, when Anshu came home, we worked on her leg attacks as well as defence, which she showed in Oslo,” Sheoran says.
On Wednesday, Anshu first scored a 15-5 win over junior world champion Nilufar Raimova of Kazakhstan before scoring a 5-1 win over Asian silver medallist Erkhembayar Davaachimeg of Mongolia to enter the semis. In the semis, Anshu kept the Ukrainian Solomiaa Vynnyk at bay with constant neck holds, thereby not letting her attack.
Anshu would eventually win the bout 11-0 on technical superiority. “The way Anshu has avoided getting caught in leg attacks against the likes of Daavachimeg and Vynnyk means that Anshu’s defence has improved. She made good counter moves after defending the leg attacks and did not let counter attacks happen here. Anshu has the advantage of having more power as compared to the American in the final and she will aim to fight with an attacking intent,” shared national coach Kuldeep Malik.
Coach Sheoran too believes that the American wrestler is a bit like Anshu as she too relies on leg attacks. “The American works on the upper body attacks before she makes a quick leg attack to unsettle the opponent,” Sheoran says, hoping his ward remains up to the task of taking on a wrestler with Olympic medal pedigree.