It is not over till the final whistle. No one could prove this age-old adage better than Sakshi Malik. With just nine seconds to go, the score in the Bronze medal match in the 58 kg category at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was tied at 5-5. Sakshi’s opponent, Kyrgyzstan’s Aisuluu Tynybekova was leading on criteria and looked all set to wrap up the medal.
Sakshi though had different ideas. An inspired charge with the clock ticking down, a strong grip on her opponent’s midsection and a takedown later, the 23-year-old from Rohtak was celebrating India’s first medal at the Rio Olympics. Sakshi’s Bronze was the first medal for India in women’s freestyle wrestling and helped salve some of the wounds that a medal-less run in this edition of the Olympic had effected.
The short and cheerful Sakshi’s performance through the whole of Wednesday inside the Carioca Arena was one of grit, determination and packed with a healthy dose of a never-say-die attitude. She did not have the easiest of draws handed to her. Coming up against two-time European Champion Johanna Mattsson of Sweden in the first round, the Rohtak-girl trailed 4-0 in the first period before two brilliantly executed takedowns in the second saw her sneak a 5-4 victory. In the pre-quarters, Mariana Cherdivara of Moldova seemed to have the bout locked up but Sakshi had saved her best for the last. With 40 seconds to go, a vicious double-leg attack saw the Indian dump Cherdivara on her backside and attain four points. With the scores tied at 5-5, Sakshi progressed to the quarters on criteria, setting up a match against 2014 World Championship Silver medallist Valeriaa Zholobova.
A tough 9-2 loss, one in which she battled just as hard, later, Sakshi was in for a nervous wait. If Zholobova made the final, the Indian would have a shot at the repechage. The Russian duly made it to the summit clash and allowed Sakshi the chance of securing India’s first medal, provided she won two high-octane clashes.
First up was Mongolia’s Purevdorj Orkhon. A formidable opponent, one who had subjected the legendary Kaori Icho to her first loss in 13 years. Sakshi though was in a league of her own. Snatching the initiative right from the get-go, a mixture of astute movement and smart use of the favoured double-leg attack saw her steadily rack up points. After six minutes, the score stood 12-6 in favour of the Indian, opening up the door for a final Bronze medal clash against Kyrgyzstan’s Tynybekova and the rest as they say is history.
Immediately after clinching the coveted medal, Sakshi said that she was confident that if she stayed in the mix over the full six minutes, she always knew that she had a chance. “My body was working well today. I knew what I had to do. The wins early on gave me confidence and also my improved fitness helped me massively. I knew that against the Kyrgyz I was in with a chance. She was tiring fast and I just had to time my attack right,” she said.
Rewinding back a few hours, Sakshi admitted that there were a few doubts creeping into her mind when she finished the first period of her opening bout trailing four points to nil against Sweden’s Mattsson. “There was a little bit of pressure. The score was against me. It would have been easy to just attack my way out of trouble but that would have given my opponent an opening. I just kept my cool. Told myself that I was good enough and just chose the right moments and techniques. With this special thing around my neck now, I think it all worked out well,” she said.