“Kyun jeetu mein? Mein machine hoon? (Why should I win? Am I a machine?) I won’t win, I’ll compete because I love my sport.”
Sakshi Malik walks past the ‘Sakshi Malik Wrestling Hall’ at the Sports Authority of India’s Sonepat Centre and straight into the indoor arena named after Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, two other Olympic medallists. The hall is a reminder of a feat Sakshi claims she’s long moved on from —the Rio Olympics bronze medal.
Olympic medallists often talk about the difficulty in motivating themselves to go through the grind all over again. The hollowness they experience after achieving what they’d set out to accomplish. Sakshi has not had a problem dealing with these issues as much as another element that left her completely flustered: expectations. Before Rio, Sakshi lived on the fringes; away from the spotlight that’s often a double-edged sword for an athlete. The medal drew so much attention on her that Sakshi says she started to feel ‘targeted.’ “I became a target – for the media and people generally… ‘Sakshi playing Asian Championship, Sakshi playing Asian Games…’ Constantly, the focus was on me. There was an expectation that I will win a gold medal at every tournament. Kyun jeetungi mein? Mein machine hoon…?”
Sakshi, always one to call a spade a spade, laments the ‘Indian mentality.’ “We feel that if she has won a medal at the Olympics, she should win a medal at each and every tournament,” she says. At one point, a person close to her said an Olympic medallist should not even concede a point to an Indian opponent.
The jibes grew louder. “Sakshi isn’t focused… fame has gone to her head… she isn’t interested in wrestling after marriage. They’ve said a lot of things.” The burden of expectations and the attention, she says, got to her. In the couple of years that followed, Sakshi’s results crashed. Unlike other Indian Olympic medal-winning wrestlers who picked and chose their tournaments, Sakshi took part in almost every championship – be it domestic, international or even dangals at her village.
The more she competed, the more her shortcomings were highlighted. Sakshi suffered a first-round exit at the 2017 World Championship and at the Commonwealth Games, where Indian wrestlers generally have to just turn up to win a gold, she could manage only a bronze. Another third-place finish at the Asian Championship last year added to her frustration. “Ek saal meri performance poori zameen mein chali gayi,” she says.
The defeat to Japan’s Yukako Kawai in the quarterfinals of the last Asian Championships hurt in particular. Sakshi says she was in control of that bout when, in the second round, her coach challenged the referee’s call. Assuming they’d halt the bout to review the decision, Sakshi stopped fighting. The referee, however, did not blow the whistle and Kawai took advantage of a stationary Sakshi to pin her down for a resounding 16-2 win.
That result sent her in an introspection mode. Sakshi had to remind herself of the reason she had started wrestling. “It wasn’t for medals,” she says. “I did this because I loved the sport. All this while, I was chasing medals and putting more pressure on myself. I realised this after losing non-stop for one year,” she adds with a chuckle.
We meet a couple of days before Sakshi is to leave for Xi’an, China, for the Asian Championships. There’s nothing at stake here but bragging rights. However, a solid show here would give her the confidence she’s lacked going into the World Championships later this year, which double up as qualifiers for the Tokyo Olympics. While rest of the women’s team is in Lucknow, Sakshi has stayed back in Sonepat after a long journey from the USA, where they had a 10-day training stint. She sits on a mat, transfixed by Bajrang Punia’s sparring session with his eccentric coach Shako Bentinidis. Like a mad bull, Shako is chasing Bajrang from one corner of the mat to another, attacking his legs. It’s one of Bajrang’s weaknesses and his task today is to stay out of Shako’s grasp. Sakshi is so mesmerised by the drill that she insists on giving it a shot – for the next 15 minutes she deceives and evades the grasp of the coach much bigger and quicker than her. “This was the reason I wrestled – for fun. I’d forgotten how it felt to be on the mat and not think about a medal.”
Sakshi will once again be the focus at the Asian Championships that get underway on Tuesday. She will be up against Kawai and China’s Pei Xingru. This time, however, the wrestler says she’s better equipped to handle the pressure. “Now I feel I don’t have any (Olympic) medal vedal,” Sakshi says. “I don’t have much time left so in the few years I have, I want to compete as much as I can – whether I win or lose is a different thing.”