Sakshi Malik is in awe of Vinesh Phogat. And not just for her fearless attitude on the wrestling mat.
A fortnight ago, Vinesh wrote an intimate tribute to her boyfriend Somvir on social media. These last 10 months have been emotionally draining for her, with the injury, surgery and all the time away from the mat. So, in a pithy post accompanied with a picture of the two, the youngest Phogat expressed her affection for Somvir.
Sakshi was floored. And inspired. “For a girl from Haryana to say something about her boyfriend in public…” she would tell one of her confidantes, ”…takes guts. Vinesh is a very brave girl.”
On the wrestling circuit, everyone has always admired Vinesh. The mix of bravado and stubbornness has earned her the nickname of ‘fighter plane’ among her friends. But that combination, Vinesh says, is also the reason for her finishing on the podium on Friday, with an Asian Championship silver medal hanging around her neck.
“I feared for my career a few months ago,” she says. “So to win a silver today is very satisfying.”
Vinesh was one of India’s biggest medal hopes at the Rio Olympics but the Games ended in tears for her as she injured her right knee. She had that knee strapped as she stepped on to the mat for the first time since that painful Rio afternoon, competing in a higher weight category and without much practice.
On Friday, as she swept aside her opponents, it looked like she’d never left the mat. Vinesh fell short, losing 8-4 to Japan’s Sae Nanjo in the final. The score-line barely does justice to Vinesh’s valiant effort. She lost the final. But her return to the mat was the silver lining for Vinesh and her coach Kuldeep Malik.
“We came here to gauge her fitness since she was competing in a tournament after almost a year. We hadn’t thought of a podium finish, to be honest,” Malik says.
Like Vinesh, Sakshi too was returning to international wrestling for the first time after the Olympics. Like Vinesh, she too was competing in a higher weight category. And like Vinesh, Sakshi lost to a Japanese wrestler as well.
After her Rio bronze, Sakshi’s media commitments, felicitations and other promotional engagements lasted almost two months. She was tired and unfit for last October’s national championship. She played in the Pro Wrestling League in January and got married soon after to fellow-wrestler Satyawart Kadian, which resulted in her missing the training camp and an exposure tournament.
If this wasn’t her first tournament after the Olympics, her 10-0 mauling by Rio gold medallist Risako Kawai in the final would perhaps have been seen very differently; more critically.
After winning the Olympic medal, Sakshi had said the constant defeats suffered by Indian wrestlers to their Japanese counterparts got stuck in her mind. “Whenever I went for international competitions, I hoped I didn’t have Japanese or Chinese athletes in my pool,” she had confessed.
On Friday, it was easy to understand why. All three Indian wrestlers in the final – Divya Kakran in 69kg being the third – lost to the Japanese in their gold medal bouts. Well, Vinesh lost while the other two were properly embarrassed in front of a sizeable crowd.
The walk to the mat for her final was the only time Sakshi was on her feet. Kawai showed why the world quivers at the mere mention of Japanese wrestlers. She showed no mercy, grabbing the Indian by her ankle and pinning her down with such ease that the match didn’t even last two full periods. The referee stopped it mid-way through the second and declared Kawai the winner by technical fall.
“The Japanese wrestlers are really quick and they read our game very well,” Vinesh says. “Sakshi fought well but sometimes you need luck as well.”
It was natural for Vinesh to jump into Sakshi’s defence. They have been together since cadet days and till date, they train together. Vinesh’s agility because of competing in lightweight helps Sakshi; while Sakshi’s strength because of competing in a category 10kg more than Vinesh benefits her.
While she was away due to injury, Sakshi would routinely check on Vinesh’s fitness, waiting for her to return.
“She would constantly tell me to return to training. Both of us have stayed away for a long time. I’d almost forgotten this feeling of training together and winning medals. So in that sense, this medal is big for me,” Vinesh says.