While the Indian contingent has been struggling at Rio, it was finally female wrestler Sakshi Malik who literally and figuratively wrestled her way to clinch the first medal for India in Rio Olympics. Her bronze medal has come after an agonizing wait and hopes dwindling as star performers kept bowing out one after the other without making a mark.
Wrestling in the 58 kg category of Women’s Freestyle Wrestling, Sakshi lost the Quarterfinal to Koblova Zholobowa (who went on become a finalist), and then won the Repechage against Mongolian Orkhon Purevdorj, and against Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. What made her victory sweeter is the fact that just the day before, Vinesh Phogat, another female wrestler in the 48 kg category, had to retire hurt after making it to the Semifinal with a promising performance.
This is India’s 25th medal and fifth wrestling medal in the Olympic Games so far and Sakshi is the first Indian female wrestler to win an Olympic medal. The gritty 23 year old wrestler from Mokhra village of Rohtak, Haryana, began training at the age of 12 in an akhara in Chotu Ram Stadium under the guidance of Ishwar Dahiya. Despite protests from locals, her trainer and her parents supported and encouraged her to pursue her interest in wrestling, a sport ‘not meant for girls’.
By the time Sakshi turned 18; she had already won junior level competitions and won a Bronze medal in the 2010 Junior World Championship in the 59 kg category. In 2014, she bagged the Gold medal at the Dave Schultz International Wrestling Tournament (60-kg). She also won the Silver medal in Commonwealth Games in Glasgow but later, at the World Wrestling Championships in Tashkent, she crashed out in the Quarterfinal. She then won the Bronze medal in the Senior Wrestling Championship in Doha in May 2015. After that, she defeated Chinese Lan Zhang at Istanbul to secure her place in the Summer Olympics Qualifiers. In July, she also won the Bronze medal in 60 kg category at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Sakshi’s story is truly inspiring for Indian female athletes not just because she has won an Olympic medal but because she has come this far despite the sexism prevalent in her home state Haryana, inarguably one of the most conservative states of India. Sex selective abortions and honour killings are what Haryana is (in)famous for. And Sakshi has also been subjected to jeering and sniggering for wrestling with boys, wearing shorts. After her Silver medal at the Commonwealth Games, however, Sakshi became no less than a celebrity, and the people who jeered at her began flocking around her for selfies. Only the fourth Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, Sakshi has silenced her critics well.
Sakshi’s spirited comeback victory in Rio Olympics, turning 0-5 in the first round to 8-5 in the second round, will go down in history as display of sheer guts and fighting spirit.