From Phogat sisters to Sakshi Malik: The rise of India’s top women wrestlers
Wrestling as a sport enjoys a rich heritage in India.
The akhadas in northern India – Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh – are quite well known for grooming the best wrestlers in the country for several decades.
Though KD Jadhav won the first medal in wrestling at Helsinki 1952, the sport only came into mainstream focus after Sushil Kumar’s bronze at Beijing 2008. However, the spotlight was still largely focused on the men.
Over the past decade though, women’s wrestling in India has come to the fore.
The performances of the nation’s female wrestlers on the international stage have been nothing short of phenomenal and it has helped establish them as the stars of the sport in India.
Here, we take a look at some of India’s best women’s wrestlers:
Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat
India’s most-loved wrestling sisters may have risen to fame after the Bollywood biopic Dangal, but their stirring performances had already made them grapplers of international repute.
Born a year apart, wrestling ran in the family for Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat. Their father Mahavir Phogat, portrayed by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan in Dangal, was a state-level champion but could not pursue the sport further.
Mahavir inspired his two daughters to wrestle though and their natural talent combined with rigorous training meant that they established themselves as wrestlers to reckon with at quite a young age.
Geeta Phogat and Babita Phogat won their first international medals at the 2009 Commonwealth Championship. Both won gold medals, Geeta in the 55kg and Babita in the 51kg.
In 2010, Geeta Phogat created history by becoming the first female Indian wrestler to win gold at the Commonwealth Games while Babita Phogat fell just one step short of joining her sister, winning silver.
Geeta Phogat made her Olympics debut at London 2012 and fell agonisingly short of becoming the first female Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal, as she lost in the repechage bout against Tetyana Lazareva.
However, the year did bring success – Geeta won her first World Championship medal, a bronze at the 2012 Women’s Wrestling World Championships in Strathcona County, Canada, where Babita Phogat also returned with a bronze.
Babita Phogat won her first Commonwealth Games gold in 2014 and made her Olympic bow at Rio 2016, where she fell in the first round.
A marriage and maternal break for elder sister Geeta Phogat, who gave birth in December last year, has meant that she has not been competing in the past few years. But she has expressed a desire to return to the mat and the one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics has given Geeta renewed hope to make another appearance at the Games.
The situation is similar for Babita Phogat, who ventured into politics a few years back. Her last international medal was a silver at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, and she is also hoping to make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics along with her sister.
The first female Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal, Sakshi Malik is a name that no Indian fan will easily forget.
Having started to train as a 12-year-old, Sakshi Malik was a frequent medal winner at the junior categories and transitioned well into the senior level, winning a bronze at the 2013 Commonwealth Championships.
Sakshi Malik followed it up with silver medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 Asian Championships but her participation in the 58kg category meant that she was nearly always overshadowed by legendary compatriot Geeta Phogat.
However, all that changed at Rio 2016. After being thrust into the limelight at the World Olympic qualifiers in place of Geeta Phogat, Sakshi Malik performed superbly to ensure her Olympics debut.
After breezing through the first two rounds, Sakshi Malik would eventually lose to Russia’s Valeria Koblova but was given a second chance through the repechage rounds.
It made Sakshi an instant star in India and meant that she had comfortably emerged from the shadows of Geeta Phogat.
It has not been the smoothest of rides for Sakshi Malik after that incredible feat but she is still in contention to make it to the Indian wrestlers’ contingent for the Tokyo Olympics.
As mentioned earlier, wrestling runs in the Phogat family and it became even more evident when a third member emerged as a superstar in the latter half of the previous decade.
Vinesh Phogat, a cousin of Geeta and Babita, is currently India’s premier female wrestler.
Five years younger than her cousins, the start of Vinesh Phogat’s career was similar – she wrestled in the akhadas of Haryana and was coached by her father and uncle.
Vinesh rose to prominence with a bronze at the 2013 Asian Championships at home in New Delhi and announced herself as the next big star by clinching the 48kg gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She also went on to win bronze at the Asian Games later that year.
Medals at nearly every tournament she took part in meant that Vinesh Phogat arrived for her Olympics debut at Rio 2016 as one of the favourites to win a medal but a knee injury in the quarter-final cut short her dream.
However, Vinesh picked herself up again, winning consecutive silvers at the Asian Championships in 2017 and 2018.
The year 2018 proved to be Vinesh's most successful yet as the Indian wrestler defended her Commonwealth Games gold medal and went on to win her maiden gold at the Asian Games.
In 2019, Vinesh Phogat won her first World Championship medal, a bronze, at Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan and sealed a quota place at the Tokyo Olympics.
She was awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the country’s highest sporting honour, in recognition of her efforts this year though Vinesh could not attend the ceremony after testing positive for COVID-19.
Vinesh Phogat will hope to get back to the mat soon and live up to the tag of medal favourite at the Tokyo Olympics next year.
The name may be unfamiliar to many, but Alka Tomar laid the foundation for women’s wrestling to flourish in India.
Grappling at a time when the facilities were not optimum and with India yet to discover women’s wrestling, Alka Tomar quietly went about her job in the early years, winning regular medals at the Asian and Commonwealth Championships.
However, Alka's most memorable moment would arrive in the World Championships.
At the 2006 World Women’s Wrestling Championships, the then 20-year-old Alka Tomar created history with her 59kg bronze, making her the first female Indian wrestler to win a World Championship medal.
In fact, it was the first World Championship medal by an Indian wrestler, either male or female, in 39 years.
Later that year, Alka Tomar would also go on to win her maiden Asian Games medal at Doha, also a bronze.
Geeta Phogat may have become the first female Indian wrestler to win a Commonwealth Games gold in 2010, but Alka Tomar followed suit with a gold of her own.
Alka opted to retire from wrestling after her gold in the 2011 Commonwealth Championships and went on to become a wrestling coach.