It's my comeback, won't rest until I win CWG gold | By Sakshi Malik
Gutted after the Tokyo Olympics miss and haunted by repeated losses to youngster Sonam Malik, Rio bronze medallist wrestler Sakshi Malik stayed put, worked hard and has now trumped her nemesis to qualify for her third Commonwealth Games.
At first, it was an overwhelming sense of disbelief - did I really not qualify for the Tokyo Olympics?
"This can't be happening, Sakshi! Tu jayegi Olympics mein, there will be some miracle," I kept telling myself on loop, in the summer of 2021, after having lost in the National trials to then-teenager Sonam Malik as another opportunity for making the cut slipped by me.
After a bronze from the 2016 Rio Olympics and becoming the first female wrestler from India to win an Olympic medal and tasting success every time I was on the mat in India, at least, I was left gutted after the loss, I wasn't used to it, I was the No. 1 in my category (62kg) for the longest time.
But athletes don't have the luxury to ponder for too long on any event and just like that, I told myself, "Koi nai, Sakshi. Let's get back to work and see, today I have the result!"
Even if it was difficult to miss out on going to Tokyo, I had made up my mind that I would only work harder - the Commonwealth Games, and the World Championships beckoned and I would give it my all, my hunger only growled louder with the distancing from competition. I wasn't going to quit so easily.
Flash forward a whole year, and I can now look back happily with my ticket for the upcoming 2022 Commonwealth Games neatly secured after my win at the trials where I not only managed to defeat Sonam but also kept my dream of gold from the Commonwealth Games alive - anything can happen if you keep believing and working hard, isn't it?
With a silver and bronze already clinched from my appearance at the 2014 and 2018 Commonwealth Games, I have every intention of making it a hat-trick feat this time at Birmingham, where I'm well-aware of the competition as they are familiar and I know just exactly what needs to be done to get my hands on the yellow metal.
"This is my moment, this is my comeback, Sakshi Malik is back and ab ki baar gold le kar aayenge," I told myself, with a little pat on the back.
R for Redemption, R for Resurgence
But it wasn't an easy road.
Up against Sonam, someone who was nearly a decade younger than me, once more in the trials for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in Lucknow, the old fears were back for a moment. I knew the odds were against me, I had never been able to win against her, missing out by fractions in all the four extremely close bouts we had had previously, since 2020.
The nerves were back, all the mistakes I had done in my previous matches against her, my sudden puzzlement at some of her moves, my incorrect reactions - they all flashed across my mind, indeed, an antidote was required before I faced her again.
I knew that I could not leave room for any mistake, I couldn't let another opportunity slip by me. I knew the stakes here, I knew the end goal and all I knew was that I was ready to fight - like never before, rekindle that hunger I had at the Olympics and give it my all.
For athletes, years are precious. With the Commonwealth Games coming only once every four years, the pressure and intensity of qualifying for the mega multi-sporting event is only more tremendous. Having been out of the international competing scene for quite a bit now, with only a quarter-final run in Yasar Dogu from February to show for it, my confidence was already a little shaky.
"What if I lose to Sonam, again?" - a lot of thoughts played across my mind, but the steely resolve to succeed somehow prevailed.
Standing across Sonam on the mat in the semi-finals of the trials, both our breaths short and fast, I started making the early moves leaving Sonam perplexed and confused. Using all of my experience, channelling every bit of my grit and passion, I found my way in the bout and soon it was a matter of time before I could reach the finish line, winning 8-1.
A sense of relief washed over me, all the doubts I had till that moment went away as the referee raised my arm - yes, I had finally defeated Sonam, the one-way results have now stopped.
After that, beating Manisha in the finals 7-1 was relatively a job easier done as I was riding on the high of having defeated Sonam and the Commonwealth Games tickets also came with it.
Age is just a number
Even if I am nearing the end of my 20s and 30s are calling out to me, I don't feel the pressure of age on my body, surprisingly. Even in training, I can give it a go with the younger grapplers and still not feel tired.
Perhaps it's the daily grind that we put our bodies through of wrestling twice a day, swimming occasionally, and hitting the gym frequently, that has kept me this strong and doesn't make me realise I am nearing the third decade of my life - I still feel like one of the fittest girls in our group!
Moreover, a lot of change has taken place since I started out wrestling. Earlier we would be asked to not bat an eyelid and have all things generously dipped in ghee, butter, down glasses of milk to gain strength - but nowadays, we watch our diet and don't consume any sugar whatsoever, which is another big reason why I can keep myself fit, keeping my hunger for medals only raging and alive.
An atmosphere of wrestling
Being in a house surrounded by wrestlers with my husband, Satyawart Kadian and my Olympian and Arjuna awardee father-in-law, Satyawan Kadian, nothing seems to have changed after my marriage in 2017.
While most girls tend to feel restricted by their in-laws after marriage and their freedom is somewhat affected, I have had the luck of not seeing any change before and after my wedding with Satyawart. Instead, I feel like I have been married into a family that eats, sleeps and breathes wrestling!
The environment at home, therefore, is always buzzing and positive with both my husband and father-in-law being wrestlers, my motivation to come back, and go the extra mile, has always been fuelled by the company at home.
While this is just the start of my return to the top and the dream of a Commonwealth Games gold is making me work all the harder now, I know that I want to give back to my sport and train more young wrestlers at the Satyawan Akhada here. I want to grow it, make it better so that India can get more wrestling champions and never return empty-handed from any competition, a trend that has already started and which I will long to continue.
Wrestling has made me who I am today and in my little ways, I will ensure that nobody faces the same obstacles I had to surpass by providing youngsters with good facilities, the right guidance and helping India truly become a powerhouse in wrestling.
(As told to Sohinee Basu)