This could be one of the best comeback stories of Indian wrestling. Wrestler Sonam Malik was just one win away to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. The 18-year-old, who was brimming with confidence looked focussed before she set her eyes on Kazakhstan's Ayaulym Kassymova, the contender she had to topple to make confirm a ticket to Tokyo in the semifinals of Asian Wrestling Olympic Qualifiers in Almaty, Kazakhstan. The women wrestlers, on Saturday, stepped on to the mat in Almaty barely hours after reaching the host city and without proper sleep for two nights.
A day after all of India's Greco-Roman team disappointed the nation by failing to qualify for Tokyo Olympics, the feats achieved by Sonam Malik and Anshu Malik were a big respite for wrestling fans.
With just four seconds after the commencement of the semi-final fight with the referee's whistle, Kassymova pulled a classic move dragged Sonam's right leg from the back. The move turned the Indian's face pale as she was in pain. And before she could even react, the Kazakh opponent managed to make her move and pulled over Sonam to a corner of the mat. Kassymova was awarded six points, while Sonam was left struggling in pain. Her coach and supporting staff rushed to the mat, fearing Sonam won't be able to get up. For those who were watching the match live, for a moment, it resonated the 2016 Rio Olympics scene of Vinesh Phogat scene, where she had to forfeit because of an injury. Without wasting much time, Sonam stood up, still struggling with her foot, as if she knew she won't be coming back without a spot at the Olympics.
What ensued was sheer magic. A strong-willed Sonam pulled off a comeback from 0-6 and slowly made her way with confidence. She equalized and 6-6 and another couple of impressive moves took her to a 9-6. Then it was just a matter of the clock to tick down. At just 18, Sonam Malik has come a long way to make her Tokyo Olympics dream happen. She is also the youngest Indian wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
Four years ago, when Sakshi Malik, who was competing in the same weight category, won the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics, Sonam was still a school student, taking part National School Games. Sonam had won the National School Games gold medal the same year. Four years later, Sonam Malik has been deemed as a Sakshi Malik beater, who has defeated the latter four times in as many times they have competed.
Hailing from the Madina village of Sonipat, Haryana, Malik was born in a family of wrestlers, who had an influence on Malik's decision to pursue the sport. She joined for coaching under coach Ajmer Malik at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Sports Complex in her village. Facilities were inadequate to start with and the coaching academy did not have mats to practice on. The players had to train on the ground, but the ground would turn muddy on rainy days, forcing the players to practice on roads.
The teenager took big strides in wrestling when she won two gold medals and 2017 and 2019. Initially, her coach was preparing Sonam for the 2024 Paris Olympics but seeing her capability as a world-beater the sudden change in plan happened. Ajmer had to repeatedly request the Wrestling Federation of India to allow Sonam to give trials for Tokyo. This is when Sonam was reckoned as a senior player and she started rubbing shoulders with Sakshi Malik, whom she considers as her idol. Sonam and Sakshi fought for the first time in 2020 January and later they met thrice where Sonam has beaten Sakshi each time, including in the final of the National Championships this year.
The resounding success makes Sonam the best woman wrestler in the 62kg category and seeing her fledgeling career, it can be easily said Sonam would be one of India's best bets for a medal in women's wrestling when they reach Tokyo, three months from now.