Updated: January 31, 2021 7:58:31 am
It was only five years ago that Sonam Malik started regularly competing against girls. And before she could even get a hang of it, she almost was forced to stop wrestling.
Today, the 18-year-old girl who grew up wrestling with the boys in her village in Haryana and overcame a career-threatening arm injury is regarded as the next big thing in Indian wrestling. Ironically, on the strength of her arm locks. On Saturday, Sonam provided evidence of it as she out-manoeuvred Rio Olympics bronze medalist Sakshi Malik to be crowned as the new national champion in the 62kg weight category in Agra.
The result is significant for several reasons. This is the third straight time Sonam has defeated Sakshi – her two earlier wins came during selection trials for international tournaments – thus making the hierarchy in the 62kg class amply clear. Crucially, the result also solidifies her chances to make the cut for the qualifiers of the Tokyo Olympics at the expense of Sakshi, whose struggles have continued unabated since medalling at Rio.
So, when the referee raised Sonam’s right arm and declared her as the winner of the final, the symbolism of the moment couldn’t be missed. Ironically, the same arm was the reason why her career nearly crashed before it actually took off. “In 2018, she damaged a nerve so badly that her arm went limp,” Sonam’s father Raj says.
The incident took place during the 2017 cadet world championships. Shortly after she won the gold medal, Sonam felt a bit of uneasiness in her arm. At first, her coaches believed it was a routine injury and tried all the desi nuskhe. But the pain remained and braving that, she continued to take part in domestic tournaments.
That year, during a state championship, her arm stopped moving. “If we lifted the arm over her head, it would fall right back,” Raj says. “She was in a lot of pain and she had to pull out of the tournament mid-way.”
It wasn’t a momentary thing. Sonam lost her grip and the arm would not do what her mind would say. “The doctors felt even if she regained full strength, wrestling was not an option for her anymore,” Raj says.
Raj emphasises on the words ‘doctors felt.’ For Sonam, quitting wrestling was unimaginable. She had been doing it since the time she turned 11 when she joined an akhara started in her village, Madina in Sonepat district, by a retired Army Subedar. “There were not many girls in our neighbourhood and the academy who wrestled. So Sonam, for the first five years or so, competed only against boys from our village. She barely lost to them…” Raj says.
Soon, she started winning at the district and state levels, which earned her a place on the national team. In her first global meet, the 2017 world cadet championship, she won the gold before injuring her arm.
“Even when everything looked over for her, Sonam did not give up. Four months after her arm stopped responding, it regained movements and it took her a few more months to rebuild the lost strength,” Raj says.
When she eventually returned on the mat, it looked like she was never away. In 2018, Sonam won a bronze medal at the cadet worlds followed by a gold in 2019, thus becoming the only Indian wrestler after two-time Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar to win two cadet world championship gold medals.
The year 2020 was washed out due to the pandemic but Sonam used the time to her advantage by working out in the local akhara. “I started training with boys once again during the pandemic as I did in the past,” Sonam says. “It was helpful because boys have more strength than girls so after competing with them, it sometimes is easier to execute a move against a woman wrestler.”
Some of it was evident against Sakshi on Saturday. Sonam endured acute pain in the stomach – and even took medication for spasms after her second-round match – to outlast Sakshi in a thrilling final, in which she made a comeback after being 0-4 down to win 7-5 by using her superior upper body strength to her advantage.
Sonam and Sakshi, arguably the two best Indian wrestlers in the 62kg weight class, are likely to meet each other once again when the selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers are held in March. “This time, we will be more confident. Till now, Sonam was seen as a junior wrestler who punched above her weight,” Raj says. “But now, she is the national champion. It’s our first step on the road to the Olympics.”
Saturday’s results (Olympic categories):
50kg: Gold – Minakshi (Haryana); Silver – Henny Kumari (Haryana); Bronze – Swati Shinde (Maharashtra) and Kirti (Delhi)
57kg: Gold – Anshu (Haryana); Silver – Lalita (Railways); Bronze – Raman Yadav (MP) and Mansi (Haryana)
62kg: Gold – Sonam (Haryana); Silver – Sakshi Malik (Railways); Bronze – Pushpa (MP) and Manisha (Haryana)