Sakshi Malik will be sitting at her home in Rohtak, Haryana next month having failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. However, she will be cheering for the Tokyo Olympics-bound Indian contingent. The 28-year-old still remembers her first day at the Games Village in Rio. Sakshi Malik says it was an out-of-the-world experience and she couldn’t believe her long-time dream was finally coming true.
She shared her thoughts and reflected on some great moments in an exclusive interview with Sportskeeda.
“I cannot describe the feeling in words. When we reached the Olympics village (in 2016), my dream finally came true. It is still one of my best feelings that I was finally standing in the Olympic village,” Sakshi Malik nostalgically tells Sportskeeda.
India will field seven wrestlers for the Tokyo Olympics. Barring Vinesh Phogat, who was Sakshi Malik’s teammate at the Rio Games, the other six will be competing in the quadrennial event for the first time.
Sakshi says it is a big opportunity for them to represent the country and they should enjoy the moment. And rightly so. It was the mantra she followed in Brazil on August 17, 2016, to create history. She became the first Indian female wrestler to win an Olympic medal for India.
“2016 was my first Olympics, but there was no pressure. For me, I had a dream of having a tricolor on my chest and winning a medal for India. Also, I was still young (24), so all my focus was to perform well. And I just did what I enjoyed the most – wrestle,” she says.
Sakshi Malik’s journey started with a dream to touch the sky
For many wrestlers, the sport was a way to secure their future. But for Sakshi Malik, taking up wrestling meant she could sit on an airplane. That is where her journey to the Olympics began. However, once she got the feel of the mat, the sky became the limit.
“At first the only thing I knew about wrestling was that my grandfather used to do it. I started with the interest of sitting in an airplane because my seniors had told me that If I secure the first place you get a chance to sit in it. Then I got to know about the Commonwealth and Asian Games and the importance of Olympics,” the 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medalist says.
Sakshi Malik began her international journey with a silver medal at the Junior Asian Championship in 2009, followed by a bronze in the Cadet Asian meet the same year. Her first medal at senior level came in at the Commonwealth championship in 2013. She won a bronze medal.
However, she was never a serious contender for an Olympic medal. India had fielded three wrestlers for the Rio Games, including Sakshi Malik (58 kg). The other two were Vinesh Phogat (48 kg) and Babita Kumari (53 kg).
Sakshi says everyone, including herself, thought Vinesh Phogat would certainly grab a medal. But a freak injury in the quarterfinal ruled Phogat out of the tournament. The injury was a major motivation factor for Sakshi, who registered one of the Olympic’s biggest comebacks to win a medal.
“I was never considered the favorite. It worked in my favor as there was no pressure. Vinesh (Phogat) and Babita were the medal contenders. But when Vinesh got injured, our morale went down. I was in the training area when Kuldeep coach sir came and motivated me. I took a break and made up my mind to win the medal for Vinesh,” Sakshi says with her head held eye.
Sakshi Malik’s D-Day at Rio Olympics
For the Haryana wrestler, it was a night of comebacks. In the qualifications against Sweden’s Johanna Mattsson, she trailed 0-4 within the first three minutes. From there, Sakshi Malik registered a tremendous comeback to register a 5-4 win.
In the pre-quarterfinal against Moldova’s Mariana Cherdivara, the Indian grappler once again found herself trailing. But unperturbed by a 0-3 chase, she put on an inspiring show to progress to the quarterfinals.
She could not continue the form and was knocked out by Russia's Valeria Koblova. But with the latter reaching the final, Sakshi Malik was given the repechage against Mongolia’s Purevdorjin Orkhon. She overcame the challenge and won the bronze medal bout against Aisuluu Tynybekova (the current world champion).
Once again, it was the same story for Sakshi Malik in the repechage. She trailed 0-5 but made a historic comeback to win India its first Olympic medal in women's wrestling.
“Yes, I was training 0-5. But I always felt I was in the game and believed in myself. I had so much confidence that I fought till last,” she says. Sakshi Malik won the contest 8-5.
Sakshi Malik now a role model for Tokyo Olympic-bound athletes
Sakshi Malik, despite missing out on Tokyo, will be a role model to many athletes, especially Anshu Malik (57 kg) and Sonam Malik (62 kg). The teenage sensations will be competing in their maiden Summer Games. Notably, Sakshi lost her spot in the Indian team to Sonam, who beat her senior counterpart four times in the past year.
Sakshi said the duo should not be worried about the outcome. Instead, they should just enjoy the experience.
“They are still young and have a long way to go. This experience at the Olympics will help them grow,” she advised the youngsters.
With just one month to go until the Tokyo Olympics, Sakshi Malik has asked the Indian athletes to focus on their training and stay positive.
“This is the last phase. So, they should not have any negative thoughts and just focus on the Olympics. For the next one month, they should forget everything and just think about how to perform at the optimum and analyze their shortcomings. Also, if they feel the pressure, they should consult a team psychologist to stay away from all negativity,” Sakshi Malik signed off.