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Cover Story
February 08, 2017

Sakshi Malik On Her Journey From Rohtak To Rio

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Tarun Vishwa. Styling by Divyak D’souza. Assisted by Savnit Arora. Hair and Make-Up by Anu Kaushik

She made the country proud by becoming the first Indian female to bag an Olympic medal in wrestling

Neither to glamour nor to the lens born, Sakshi Malik poses for the camera with growing confidence, warming up with each subsequent change in the cool confines of the studio. The young sports star had earlier scrutinised the selection of designerwear laid out in the changing room, before proclaiming herself more than satisfied with the offerings. And although a tad uncomfortable in the stilettos that she steps into for a few shots, she displays a fascination for her final look as seen on the laptop, often taking snapshots on her own phone.

Stepping beyond the world of akharas and wrestling, the Olympic bronze medallist is enjoying her time in the sun — taking her pick of offers that are coming her way, be they shoots, appearances at events and television shows, promotional activities and more. She seems to be untouched yet by the new experiences filling her horizon, for Malik’s innocence, raw energy and curiosity come through in the few hours that we spend with her — as does her eagerness to return to the akhara, her hallowed space, once the business of the morning is dispensed with.

Having just completed an intensive training session in the capital the previous day, Malik, who has created sporting history by becoming the first Indian female wrestler to bag a medal at the Olympics, has requested a slightly delayed start than is normal for her. So, there we are, all prepped up for the 24-year-old who is scheduled to arrive at 7 a.m.

She walks in quietly behind the girl who is her companion for the day for the interaction with Verve. The wrestler’s trademark curls fall a little bit below her shoulders and she is dressed simply in a T-shirt and jeans. Though she may come across as abrupt to some, more so when dealing with people she has just met, the down-to-earth Malik is a refreshing change from the diva brigade with its huge retinue and routine of endless demands.

Settling down to the ministrations of the make-up artist, Malik asks for a cup of hot tea — it arrives from a local chai-wallah, and after the first sip, she calls for a refill. In her conversation, she mentions having bought some M.A.C. products, and talks about experimenting with them, on her own.

Life after August 17, 2016 has changed for the Rohtak-born-and-bred girl, and Malik is the first to admit to the new-found attention. “Before the games nobody knew me; now the entire country does. Everyone loves and respects me; people want to meet me. Earlier many would say that a girl can’t become a wrestler, it’s a man’s game. But I proved that a girl can win a medal in the Olympics for wrestling. Now, parents have begun to send their daughters to learn how to wrestle.”

Personally, she admits to having gained a greater degree of confidence after her landmark victory at what was her first Olympic Games. She admits to experiencing a great deal of butterflies in her stomach while competing at huge global tournaments, against international athletes. Malik says, “When we look at the foreign athletes and their practice sessions, we are overawed by their preparation and physique. But we cannot let the pressure overpower us, because then we will not be able to do well. I always have mixed feelings while I am performing at such a big level. There is tension; there is excitement as well. But once in the arena, all my fear disappears and I try to give it my 100 per cent. Ultimately, though, it is a physical sport and a mind game.”

Malik emphasises that though winning is important, doing one’s best is the mantra that powers her on, for that is what yields results. Speaking of victories and losses, she states, “It is a feeling that you cannot describe. You have trained rigorously, lost weight, starved to get into shape but when you stand on the podium, all the struggle is forgotten. When they are raising your country’s flag, it is the best feeling in the world. On the other hand, after a loss, you do feel down for a couple of days. But, you have to prepare yourself mentally, reminding yourself that there are many more competitions to come. And dive back into training to improve and regain the lost confidence. I come from a state with the worst gender ratio in the country. But I was lucky, because my parents never distinguished between my brother, Sachin, and me. I was allowed to do whatever I wanted to and when I decided to join wrestling — which was considered a boy’s game — they provided me with whatever I needed. But it was hard. At school, people would talk about the fact that I was a girl who had gotten into wrestling. The schedule was tough. The school bus would come at 6.30 a.m. I would get up at 4 a.m., train for a bit, attend school, return, go for my tuitions and then train again. My father would come to my practices and watch me train. Whatever I needed — be it almonds or energy-boosting drinks — he would bring it for me. My mother planned my diets.”

Discipline ruled her life and left the young girl with little time to engage in any other activities or modes of relaxation. Like others of her age her girlie side did express itself in her interest in feminine toys. Malik, whose room is filled with teddy bears, remembers, “I was very fascinated by Barbie dolls but at that time my parents did not buy them for me because they were not a necessity and they asked me why I wanted to waste money on them. Today, I can afford to buy them, but now I am only passionate about wrestling.”

Many a time, the harsh schedule made her feel frustrated. She recalls one occasion when she was tempted to throw in the towel. “I was studying and wrestling at the same time. I told my parents that they should ask me to do only one thing, thinking that they would tell me to quit studying and focus on my game because that is what all athletes do. But, my parents told me to leave wrestling and I promptly said that I would continue to do both. I could not have given up wrestling — it gave me the greatest happiness.”

The term ‘weekend’ has no meaning in her dictionary. Malik says, “I watch my brother and his wife roam around, go for movies; but we wrestlers can’t do that because we need to be well-rested. We get a break on Sundays and that is the only day I can sleep in. It is too short a time to get totally rested. I do watch a little television on my day off.”

The route to the mat was not easy but she made it with her dedication and her unwavering focus. And today, she is also part of the JSW Sports Excellence Programme (that also supports the famed Phogat sisters, the world-record-holder javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and boxer Vikas Krishan Yadav among others).

She owes her success not just to her parents (Sudesh and Sukhbir) but to her friends, her training partners, her coaches, the Indian Railways (where she is employed) and the wrestling federation, says she. Her closeness to other wrestlers like Vinesh Phogat provides her with a network for conversation and unwinding but it is her newest relationship that gives her the greatest opportunity to confide her innermost thoughts. Shortly before karva chauth this year, Malik got engaged to her wrestler boyfriend Satyawart Kadian of Rohtak — a medal winner at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games (2014) — at her residence. In fact, the pictures she snaps on her phone as the shoot progresses are for him. She says, “We are from the same field. He is my lucky charm and thinks of my dreams as his own. If I am on the verge of giving up, he pushes me. I won this medal largely because of his support.”

With both of them being wrestlers, how do they resolve arguments? Malik laughs. “Arré, just because we are both wrestlers, will we be constantly wrestling? Whatever small arguments we have had till now, we have resolved them by talking things out. I am sure in the future, we will do the same.” If things go according to plan, marriage is on the anvil next year, though the date has not yet been fixed, and Malik says she will continue wrestling even after tying the knot, for tournaments and the next Olympics beckon!

Inspired by wrestlers Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt, she too dreamed of one day becoming like them. She says, “Sushil and Yogeshwar took our country to new heights. By winning Olympic medals, they opened the way for Indian wrestlers. Today, when I am also known as Sakshi pehelwan, I feel proud. And today, like them, I see my posters everywhere. The first one I saw was after I won a silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2014.”

Malik has also said that she began wrestling because she wanted to sit in a plane. “I used to get excited every time I saw a plane in the sky and I often wondered when I would get to travel in one. I thought that when I reached the top in India, I would be able to fly,” she recalls. “In 2007, I went for the National Games in Guwahati and that is the first time I flew.”

As a child, Malik says she was naughty and would play pranks in school. She states, “After getting into wrestling I have calmed down. I don’t care about anything other than my training and rest. In a sense both my worlds are one — I train, then come home to rest, yet my mind continues to be filled with thoughts of the game. How I am on the mat is different from how I am once I step off it. Just because I am aggressive on the mat does not mean that I will lose my cool and hit someone if I get angry. In real life, I am very soft and simple-natured. Growing up, there were many chances to beat someone up, but till date I have never deliberately hit someone. I do not get angry often and when I do, I take deep breaths to calm down.”

Our conversation is drawing to a close, but before she jumps up to go back to the hotel and then to Rohtak, I ask the newly minted icon what advice she would give to young girls. Malik — who has a master’s in physical education and plans to start an academy — says simply, “Do whatever you want to do with complete dedication. Don’t allow your mind to wander. It’s important to have the right mix of everything — education, knowledge, concentration in the game, proper diet and rest. I love the game and I will beg people to follow it. And I hope that in time I can train more and more children.” As she takes her leave, an image from the morning lingers in my mind — of her striking a wrestling pose in a Gucci jacket over a pair of trousers and a shirt. It all seemed so instinctive! If only her undying passion and focus remain unspoilt by the worldly influences that have begun to follow in the trail of her success!

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