Sakshi Malik: ‘I always knew I would make a comeback’

Injuries and poor form over the past few years have hurt Sakshi Malik’s reputation on the mat. However, the 29-year-old – she will turn 30 next month – shrugged off all the rustiness to come back from a 0-4 deficit in the Commonwealth Games final to pin Ana Godinez Gonzalez and bag the gold medal in the women’s freestyle 62kg wrestling.

She had finally exorcised the ghosts of her past. An emotional Sakshi found it difficult to express her emotions after the bout on Friday. “This is my third Commonwealth Games. I had a silver, I had a bronze, so I thought of nothing less than gold. I had never heard the national anthem played during my medal ceremonies. Until today. And it filled my heart. This was something I had always wanted to hear. This is the biggest medal after Rio 2016 (bronze).”

Sakshi, the first female Indian wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics, she had to miss the bus to Tokyo after she moved up the weight category to accommodate 20-year-old Sonam Malik in the 62kg class. Sakshi had lost four bouts against her since 2020. The struggle was real.

Until of course, the Commonwealth Games wrestling trials in May 2022. Faced with the all-familiar foe, Sakshi did feel the jitters, but showed courage to trump Sonam 8-1.

“I told myself there are ups and downs. We are not machines, who are always bound to perform. Everyone has a downtime. I had a downfall too. But I always knew I would make a comeback.” Sakshi said.

Come-from-behind win

On Friday at the Coventry Arena, Godinez Gonzalez seemed to have the upper hand in the opening moments of the bout. While attacking, she was quicker than Sakshi. A failed reversal from Sakshi saw Gonzalez switch to the offensive and she made Sakshi resort to the starfish defence twice to bag four points.

“I almost had two points but it went away. I was 0-4 down. But this happens in wrestling. One slips and the other capitalises,” Sakshi said.

A quick turnaround after the interval saw Sakshi roll her Mexico-born Canadian opponent over to the side before successfully pinning her to the mat.

“Double leg throws to the side are my favourite. They always work. Whenever I am in tough spots, I use them to get out of it. I have been training for 18 years and I have used this move countless times. Maybe I haven’t eaten for as many times,” Sakshi said, drawing laughter from everybody around.

“The body has got so used to that move that you don’t even realise when it has come to effect and when you have pinned your opponent.”

Sakshi Malik competes against Ana Godinez Gonzalez during the gold medal match.
| Photo Credit: Getty Images

Sakshi was desperate for a win given this was her “last opportunity to win gold” in the Commonwealth Games. She said, “In Olympics, I had won matches in seconds. Here, I still had three minutes to make a comeback. I had thought of putting up a fight till the very end.”

Tough times

Talking about the darker times she had endured, especially when she went on a dry run and didn’t win any international title since the Commonwealth Championship in December 2017, Sakshi said: “Although my confidence was down, I went on training in the camp. My coaches told me I am still one of the fittest players when I trained with my opponents. Even juniors. But I used to think that something was wrong. Samaye kharaab hai (The time isn’t right). At one time, I was unable to understand what had gone wrong. But I continued to work.”

She decided to work with a psychologist to find the answers. “My psychologist asked me to write regular journals on what is missing from my life. We talked about my negative thoughts. In training I felt well, but the competitions and results didn’t reflect the same. Then my psychologist started giving me some homework to do – writing answers to certain questions.”

Sakshi still makes entries into her journal every day, except when she is competing. “I don’t carry it during competitions. Then it becomes a bit stressful – write, concentrate on dropping weight at the same time. For the four to five days of competitions, I don’t write. Otherwise, I am very regular,” she said.

Wrestling family

Wrestling is now a way of life for Sakshi. She married wrestler Satyawart Kadian, son of Olympian Satyawan, in 2017. “They have had a lot of impact on my wrestling career because we have our own akhada – Satyawan Akhada. My father-in-law is my guruji and he helps me train.”

Asked how she plans to give back to the sport, Sakshi said, “Indian wrestling has grown to unimaginable levels. There are so many competitions. The pool here is so talented that I am more scared to compete in India than outside India (laughs). I will work to grow my akhada into a better place. The difficulties I have faced shouldn’t affect today’s kids.”

On her way from Tokyo to Birmingham, Sakshi had to fight her demons. It wasn’t easy but she, now, wants to bury all of them in the newfound glory. “I feel so good. I have forgotten all the past disappointments with today’s gold.”

However, an out-and-out professional, Sakshi refuses to rest on her laurels. “Asian Games is the next target,” she said.

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