It was afternoon in Rio when the journalists’ WhatsApp group burst into a flurry of texts. At the Joao Havelange stadium, TintuLukka had lost her ticket to the semi-finals. In the wrestling venue, Carioca Arena, wrestler Vinesh Phogat had to be carried out on a stretcher. And, then there was Sakshi Malik, who had lost to 9-2 to eventual silver-medallist Valeria Koblova of Russia. Did she stand a chance for the bronze, the group wondered.
V. Krishnaswamy, the press attache, texted: “If Koblova reaches the final, then Sakshi gets into repechage. Else, eliminated. Cheer for Kobolova.” And, so we did. The Russian would be surprised to know that Indians were praying for her. At 1:32pm, freelance journalist Sanjay Dudhane texted that Sakshi was into repechage. And, at 2:45pm, Harpal Singh Bedi, the greybeard of the press corps, confirmed: “Sakshi in repechage from 4pm”. A few of us were inbound from the athletics venue. And, then, it was a long wait.
When the wait was done, Sakshi Malik became the first Indian female wrestler to win an Olympic medal, and the fourth Indian woman to stand on an Olympic podium ever. The others being Karnam Malleshwari (weightlifting bronze, Sydney 2000) Saina Nehwal (badminton bronze, London 2012) and M.C. Mary Kom (boxing bronze, London 2012). For Sakshi, the Rio bronze is a hard-fought gift to herself. A fortnight from now, on September 3, she will celebrate her 24th birthday.
Sakshi´s Olympic campaign has been about comebacks. She was 0-4 down in the qualifiers, but came back to win it 5-4. In the pre-quarter-final, she was 0-3 down, but closed at 5-5. And, in repechage, she was 0-5 down, before defeating Kyrgyztans Aisuluu Tynybekova 8-5. The gold went to Japan´s Kaori Icho and the silver to Koblova. The co-bronze medallist is Tunisia´s Marwa Amri.
After the bruising bouts, Sakshi looked like she could barely stand. Her hair frizzy, her face drawn and her body slick with sweat. Once the medal was confirmed, her smile was something to behold. She held the tricolour aloft and then crashed to her knees, burying her face in the mat, her body shivering. Later, on the podium, she looked proper in her India tracksuit and a dark blue hairband. But, the smile… the smile said it all.
The girl from Rohtak, Haryana, had fought the enormous odds to be in wrestling. Men in her village thought the arena was no place for a girl. And, they objected when Sakshi started training in 2004, at Ishwar Dahiya’s akhara in the Chotu Ram stadium, Rohtak. Because of the lack of female training partners, Sakshi would train with the boys. Help came from the heavens when fellow wrestler Suman Kundu won the gold at the sub-junior national meet. Though support was not forthcoming, the protests died. Suman later hit the headlines when she won the 63kg bronze in the New Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010.
And, with the ‘Dangal’ sisters—Geeta Phogat, Babita Kumari and Vinesh Phogat—coming from the same area, Sakshi had to fight for her place. She came to Rio after grabbing the 58kg ‘ticket’ from Geeta.
As Rio goes to bed, the Indian contingent will sleep better. Sakshi will sleep dreamlessly. Badminton ace P.V. Sindhu will sleep the best, with a weight taken off her shoulders.