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The men’s selection trials on July 26 to pick wrestlers who would represent India at the World Wrestling Championships in Kazakhstan in September - also the first event offering quota places for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics - ended on an anti-climactic note, without cut-throat competition and high-quality action on display. For a nation that has long been knocking on the doors of the elite club of wrestling powerhouses, the men’s trials proved to be a damp squib with only the 57kg category seeing a few tight games. However, national wrestling coach Kuldeep Malik had been certain that the women’s competition would offer more competition, which was exactly the case on Sunday, as 37 wrestlers fought it out in six categories at the Sports Authority of India, Lucknow. Though the script went as per plan till the semis, the final two rounds saw a number of close games and upsets, with the biggest one being the loss of Pooja Dhanda, a bronze medallist in the World Championships, to Sarita Mor, an Asian championships silver medallist in the 57kg category. Pooja, who barely survived against junior Asian champion Anshu Malik in the semis after the bout ended 4-4, ran out of moves in the final as she went down fighting 1-2. Seema Bisla, too, caused an upset of sorts as she got the better of seasoned Nirmala Devi 7-0 in the 50kg division, while Divya Kakran’s bout with former Asian champion Navjot Kaur in the 68kg category sparked a lot of interest. The current Asian bronze medallist, Kakran, saw off a series of attacks to hold on and clinch the World Championship berth by a margin of 6-3. Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik, who comfortably qualified for the World Championships, winning both bouts on technical superiority in the 62kg, defeated Anita 11-0 in the semis and handed Reshma Mane a 13-2 drubbing in the summit clash. Sakshi spoke exclusively to The Bridge, shedding light on the transformation of women’s wrestling and the increased competition levels. Sakshi Malik after winning the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics 2016 “The women wrestlers have been training hard and a lot has to do with the support that they are now receiving. Four years ago, not many women were keen to play the sport, and even if they wanted to, there was resistance from their families. But the Olympics medal, along with Vinesh’s Commonwealth Games and Asian Games gold, and Pooja’s bronze medal in the World Championships have changed the parents’ outlook. I feel very proud that they are sending their talented girls to become wrestlers. There had always been a lot of talent, and it is coming to the fore in the last few years.”
Unsurprisingly, Malik, who had become the first woman wrestler from India to win a medal in the Olympics, is now yearning to change the colour of her medal. “Yes, I created history, but all that is in the past. My eyes are now only fixed on securing the Olympics spot, and then go for gold!”
Malik, hence, did not take her bouts on Sunday lightly, and instead focused on winning with a big lead. “The last thing that I could have done was to take the opponents lightly. I have been practising with them and I know that they are always looking for the slightest chance. My aim was to win with a big lead and win well, so I could gather all the confidence going forward.”