Nineteen and nerveless, India's Anshu Malik is wrestling's next big thing
Indian freestyle wrestler Anshu Malik has just turned 19, but is already being talked about as a potential future Olympic gold medallist.
She first made a name for herself by pinning down gold in the World and Asian Cadet Championships, before being crowned Junior Asian champion in 2019.
Her senior debut came in early 2020 - before the COVID-19 pandemic shut competition down - and she didn't disappoint. The Haryana-born grappler reached the 57kg final at the stacked Matteo Pellicone Memorial meet in Rome.
Anshu's spectacular run included victories over seasoned veterans like Canada’s reigning 59kg world champion Linda Morais, and 2014 Youth Olympic Games champion Grace Bullen of Norway.
Ultimately the gold medal match was a step too far for Anshu, who was soundly beaten 10-0 by Nigerian World No.2 Odunayo Adekuoroye. However, the young Indian had already shown more than enough talent to make the wrestling world take notice.
Anshu Malik had wrestling in her blood
Anshu was born in Nidani village, which lies in the State of Haryana - a famous breeding ground for wrestlers in India, like 2019 world bronze medallist Vinesh Phogat.
The comparison's with India’s top female wrestler don't stop there, as both women also hail from a rich lineage of grapplers.
Anshu's father Dharamvir was an international competitor, while her uncle Pawan won a South Asian Games gold medal.
However, there was no pressure from her family to follow in their sporting footsteps. The future star's beginnings in wrestling were completely of her own accord.
"When she was 11, she saw her brother going for wrestling practice and she insisted that she wanted to go as well. We are from a family of wrestlers so I felt that was a good idea," her father told ESPN.
Unlike many of her wrestling peers, Anshu enjoyed excellent wrestling opportunities in her home town, including the Chaudhary Bharat Singh Memorial School, with its strong focus on sports.
"We never had to travel very far to get her good coaching and support,” Malik Senior continued. “Her first coach was a Georgian wrestler who taught her very strong basics and encouraged her to compare herself to the best wrestlers in the world and not just India."
Inspired by Japanese wrestling
Anshu followed her early coach’s sage advice and started studying Japanese wrestlers, who have taken home 11 of the 18 gold medals awarded in the history of women’s wrestling at the Olympics.
"Whenever I got a chance to compete against the Japanese wrestlers, I would always ask them what exactly they did. I always wanted to know how they trained. Even when I had beaten them," Anshu, who counts four-time Olympic champion Icho Kaori as her hero, recalls.
"They don't break their bodies like we do in India. They might not be as strong as you are, but their technique is perfect. That is what makes them so good.” - Anshu Malik on Japanese wrestlers.
These lessons, plus Anshu’s dedication in training, led to something of a role reversal.
After taking out the 60kg gold medal at the 2018 Asian Cadet Championships in a staggering display of endurance which has become her hallmark, it was her Japanese rival Natami Ruka who walked up to the new champion afterwards to ask, "How do you train?"
Competition with Pooja Dhanda for Tokyo 2020 Olympics
While Anshu’s meteoric rise up the ranks is great news for Indian wrestling, it is perhaps less so for fellow Haryana-born wrestler Pooja Dhanda.
Despite winning 57kg bronze at the 2018 world championships, an injury-plagued 2019 has seen her replaced by Anshu as the favourite to represent India in that division at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021.
Upon her return to wrestling in 2020, Dhanda was beaten by the teenager at the Indian trials for the Asian Wrestling Championships.
Anshu took home the bronze with a tense 4-1 win over Uzbekistan’s Sevara Eshmuratova at the New Delhi event, to further strengthen her case for Olympic inclusion.
However, after the Asian Olympic Qualifiers were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, a now injury-free Dhanda is confident she can rediscover her best form.
“I had four back to back injuries last year, so rehabilitation took away a bit of time,” she said.
“I have now the World Championship in mind. I am glad that the Olympics got postponed, it gives me another chance.
“When competition is there we can measure our rivals, so not having competition is definitely impacting the game.”
Both women were been called up to the September national training camp in the northern Indian city of Lucknow.
Whoever makes the plane for Japan, that India now has two world class athletes competing for the same position is a testament to the improvement of its women's wrestling programme.
Tokyo 2020, and beyond
The favourite to land Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020 at 57kg is Japan’s own Kawai Risako.
The reigninging 63kg Olympic champion is also the current 57kg world champion, having dropped down a weight category after Rio 2016.
At 25-years-old and competing on home turf, it will take a monumental effort to beat her.
But if Anshu has proven one thing, it’s that she’s not to be underestimated. With an extra year’s experience under her belt, who knows what she’d be capable of?
Even if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo, India have a teenage prized asset, as if she continues on her current trajectory, she may well be the No.1 seed going into the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Olympics.