Sakshi Malik has spent a major part of her 22 years living under the shadows of Geeta Phogat. It won’t be an exaggeration to call Phogats the first family of Indian women wrestling. The three sisters – Geeta, Babita and Vinesh – have been the pioneers. More so Geeta, who, in 2012, became the country’s first woman wrestler to win a world championship medal and qualify for the London Olympics. Their story has even inspired a Bollywood movie.
Understandably, Sakshi and others in the 58kg category, which Geeta made her own, were perennially overshadowed by the star grappler. On Saturday, though, the 23-year-old stepped out of Geeta’s shadows to assert her position as one of the most promising wrestlers in the country by clinching a quota for the Rio Olympics in the last qualifying tournament, currently underway in Istanbul. She eventually settled for silver medal, but podium position was a mere formality.
The Phogat family, in fact, would have experienced mixed emotions on Saturday. It was a day when the eldest and most experienced of the three, Geeta, was dethroned as the queen of her category while the youngest, Vinesh, continued to impress.
At the previous qualifying event in Mongolia, Vinesh was found overweight by 400gm, which saw her being disqualified from the event. With the federation threatening to take action against her, the wrestler promised she would return with a quota from Istanbul. And she did. Vinesh won the gold medal in 48kg category but, more importantly, ensured India will have two woman wrestlers at the Olympics for the first time.
While Vinesh’s qualification was on expected lines, Sakshi enhanced her reputation by winning a quota in a category where Geeta has dominated for the last six years. Her medals at national and international tournaments were of little help when a spot in the Indian team was at stake as Geeta was preferred over her on most occasions for major events.
But many regard her to be as good as Geeta, if not better. And on Saturday, she lived up to the billing. Geeta was sent back home last week after she failed to turn up for her bout during the Olympic qualifier in Mongolia last month. Joining the team as a last-minute replacement, Sakshi grabbed the rare opportunity that went her way.
She put up a commanding show to clinch the silver medal but more importantly, secured a quota for India for the Rio Games, beating the 2012 world champion Lan Zhang of China in the process. Those who’ve followed her aren’t surprised.
Sakshi’s coach Ishwar Dahiya says she has had the better of Geeta of late, and also recorded respectable performances in international events. In the last four months, Sakshi has defeated Geeta twice in as many bouts. In December last year, Sakshi overcame Geeta in the Pro Wrestling League and last month at the national trails, she dominated Geeta 8-1 to be part of the Asian Olympic qualifier team for Astana. “We always had the confidence in Sakshi. She is a confident wrestler and is best in the category. Past results show that,” Ishwar says.
Sakshi joined Ishwar’s akhara at the Chotu Ram stadium in Rohtak in 2004. Initially, it was objected by the locals but Ishwar was committed to the task and asked girls to practice hard. When one of his wards, Suman Kundu, won a gold at the sub-junior nationals, the locals stopped objecting to women taking up the sport.
Sakshi’s journey saw her clinch medals at sub-junior, junior and senior levels. She won the silver medal at 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and later a bronze at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.
“She has worked hard all this while. Geeta was always there but Sakshi kept working hard. Everyday she used to come on a cycle to the stadium and train with boys. She is a very motivated and sincere student,” Ishwar says.
In Istanbul, Sakshi lost her final bout to 2014 World Championships silver medallist Valeria Koblova Zholobova of Russia. But it was her run before the final that makes her feat more important. In the semifinal, Sakshi overcame a tough challenge from the favourite Lan Zhang. She had won early round bouts by technical fall.
“Sakshi aims for the legs from the beginning. That is the strong part of her game. She won’t wait for the opponent to attack. If she stays focused and trains harder, she will win more medals for India,” he says.
Vinesh, meanwhile, too won her matches by technical fall but she went one better than Sakshi. She won her final bout as well in the 48kg. It was an emotional affair for her as she had to redeem herself after she was warned by the federation for being over-weight at the earlier Olympic qualifying tournament.
And when she finally qualified for Olympics, she stood on the mat in disbelief and trying to control the tears. Till last weekend, she wasn’t sure if she would be a part of the Indian team anymore. On Saturday, it was redemption of sorts for her.