For a few hours on Friday, the Tashkent airport terminal turned into a warm-up hall for Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik. During a nine-hour layover before continuing their journey to Almaty, Kazakhstan, the Indian wrestlers changed into their sweat-suits – wore a couple of layers, in fact – and started jogging around the waiting hall.
They sweated buckets, starved themselves for almost 18 hours, reached their destination at midnight, underwent COVID-19 tests and slept only for a couple of hours. On Saturday, they woke up tired from the travel, competed – in Sonam’s case, through pain – in the Asian Olympic Qualifiers and sealed their spot for the Olympic Games, to be held in July-August.
For the national champions, the road to Tokyo was anything but smooth.
“When they left Delhi on Friday morning, both of them weighed roughly a kilogram above their weight,” Sonam’s father Raj says, referring to the weight categories they compete in – 18-year-old- Sonam wrestles in the 62kg class, Anshu, 19, in 57kg.
It is normal for wrestlers to weigh a kilo or so over their class limit. Usually, they drop the excess weight before the weigh-in on the day of their bouts. In Sonam and Anshu’s case, however, that would have been cutting it too fine.
Congratulations to our women wrestlers, Sonam Malik and Anshu Malik for winning a quota each in #Tokyo2020. Both have shown remarkable performances in the qualifying matches. I wish them the very best in representing India 🇮🇳 pic.twitter.com/i8hssmMRVb
— Kiren Rijiju (@KirenRijiju) April 10, 2021
The Wrestling Federation of India had booked their flights to Almaty that would reach the destination just hours before their opening bouts on Saturday. That would have left them with very little time to cut the excess weight, and even if they would’ve somehow managed that, the task would have left them drained.
“They wore layers of warm clothes and started running at the Tashkent airport. They did not eat anything until after their bout to make sure they were within their weight limit,” Anshu’s coach Jagdish Sheoran says.
Raj adds: “It helped that both were together. They are like sisters, they understand each other that well.”
Foes to friends
Anshu and Sonam are inseparable. Now.
Before they became friends, though, they were foes on the mat. During their early days, both competed in the 56kg category and faced off in tournaments twice. In 2016, Sonam beat Anshu at a state-level inter-school meet, and a few months later, Anshu exacted her revenge in a state-level cadet meet.
The nature of their rivalry was so fierce that even Sonam and Anshu’s fathers, Raj and Dharamveer respectively, got drawn into it.
“A couple of times, even we got face-to-face with each other,” says Raj, who even alleged his daughter Sonam was a victim of cheating. Today, he laughs it off. “It happens sometimes in the heat of the moment.”
By late 2016 though, the rivals were selected for a national cadet camp in Lucknow and were made to share a room. That’s when they became friends, and as their bond grew stronger, the fathers too decided to come to an arrangement.
“It was evident to everyone that these two girls were better than most others,” Sheoran says. “They had become friends too by staying in the camp. So it didn’t make sense to make them compete against each other.”
— Mihir Vasavda (@mihirsv) April 10, 2021
Raj says the two families agreed to put them in two different weight categories. “Instead of fighting between themselves for one gold medal, they could win a gold medal each. The decision benefitted both,” he says.
From that moment, Anshu and Sonam’s rise has been meteoric: they have dominated every age category right up to the senior level where they won their maiden national titles earlier this year.
“It was fate that both of them qualified for the Olympics on the same day,” Raj says.
Playing through pain
Anshu was largely considered a favourite to clinch the Tokyo quota despite the panic caused by the last-minute travel arrangements. The Asian Championship bronze medalist lived up to the billing, winning each of her bouts by technical superiority, which is by a margin of 10 points.
It wasn’t so straightforward for Sonam, whose category was divided into two groups. She defeated Jia Long, a rising Chinese star, in her opening bout, dominated Taipei’s Hsin Ping Pai in the second round before staring slowly against Asian silver medalist and top seed Ayaulym Kassymova of Kazakhstan.
Kassymova’s warp speed surprised Sonam and before she could even realise, the home favourite had raced to a 6-0 lead while the Indian wrestler clutched at her knee and cried in pain. At that moment, it looked like it was game over for Sonam.
Somehow, though, she ignored the pain and used her immense upper body strength to stage a remarkable comeback, winning nine points in a row to settle the matter. As she stepped off the mat, the youngest Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics burst into tears. Sonam eventually pulled out of the final against Long and the extent of her injury is yet to be known.
“She played through pain,” Raj says. “But that’s what Olympics are about, after all. The pain and sweat have only made this achievement sweeter.”