If Geeta Phogat’s gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games brought India’s women’s wrestling to the forefront, it was Sakshi Malik who helped it seal a place in the Indian sporting folklore.
She is, after all, the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal. But to think, she was not even supposed to be at the Games.
Competing alongside Geeta Phogat, the face of women’s wrestling in the country at the time, in the 58kg category, Sakshi Malik for long was second fiddle to her much-celebrated compatriot.
Building up to Rio 2016, it was Geeta who was expected to be the flagbearer for women’s wrestling when the Olympics came by. But before the Games, she had to earn the right to compete.
An off day at the 2015 World Wrestling Championships meant that Sakshi Malik had to rely on the Olympic Qualifying event in Mongolia for a place at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The surprise call-up
In Mongolia though, the story was no different. Geeta bowed out in the early rounds, to lose out on an opportunity to fight for the two quota places available at the meet. However, her troubles wouldn’t end there.
Geeta’s decision to forfeit the repechage bout in Mongolia didn't sit well with the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) who would go on to provisionally suspend the wrestler and slot in Sakshi Malik for the final Olympic qualifiers in Turkey.
A surprising call-up with a chance to compete at the biggest sporting extravaganza - the Summer Olympics - up for grabs, the stakes were high for wrestler Sakshi Malik as she embarked on her Olympic journey.
But the Rohtak girl barely let the pressure tell as she eased past her competition at the final qualifying event in Istanbul, Turkey, before beating China’s Zhang Lan on criteria in the semi-final to clinch the quota place for Rio 2016.
Sakshi Malik’s Olympic medal had started taking shape.
“It was my dream! I had been wrestling since I was 12-13 years old. I was working hard day and night to achieve my dream,” she would later tell Olympics.com.
Sakshi Malik’s Olympic medal moment
Though the Indian wrestler qualified for her maiden Olympics in 2016, Sakshi was flying under the radar in terms of being a medal contender for the country.
The nation had its eyes fixed on the likes of Abhinav Bindra, Jitu Rai, Sania Mirza, Vinesh Phogat and Saina Nehwal, while a young Sakshi Malik was expected to absorb the experience and build on it going forward in her career.
But with the shooters unable to live up to the billing and the tennis stars enduring a difficult time, India’s hopes and prayers soon shifted to wrestling - a discipline that had guaranteed medals in the previous two editions courtesy Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt.
Having seen her mate Vinesh Phogat stretchered out, the onus was on Sakshi to deliver and the Indian wrestler was determined to make a point and win an Olympic medal.
"The only thought in my mind was ‘you have been working for this for years and now you have to complete it."
The Indian wrestler went about her business in the 58kg category at the Carioca Arena with some close wins in the initial rounds. Sakshi’s momentum, however, was stopped after a 2-9 loss at the hands of Russian Valeria Koblova in the quarter-finals.
But with Koblova making the final, Sakshi was handed a second shot at the medal through the repechage rounds. And this time she didn’t falter.
“As Koblova made it to the final, I took a sigh of relief. I knew I would get a chance now,” Sakshi recalled.
Mongolia’s Pürevdorjiin Orkhon was swept aside in no time as the Indian wrestler set up an Olympic bronze medal bout against the then Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan.
Sakshi keeps India’s flag flying
Up against a technically gifted wrestler, Sakshi Malik knew that she would have had to be on top of her game from the first minute if she had to get something from the ‘all-or-nothing’ bout.
But the Indian wrestler’s defensive approach proved to be costly for her as Tynybekova would race to a comfortable 5-0 lead in the opening round.
But just when it looked like India’s wait for an Olympic medal in Rio would extend further, Sakshi took matters into her own hands and produced one of the finest comebacks in Indian wrestling history.
Going for her opponent’s legs, Sakshi Malik inflicted a series of takedowns to rally into the bout and draw parity at 5-5.
But Tynybekova still enjoyed a slender advantage on criteria after having scored with a 4-point takedown early in the bout.
However, with just seconds remaining in the match, Sakshi Malik would wriggle out of an attempted takedown to expose her opponent once again with a freak move to seal the bronze. A move that stunned herself and Tynybekova alike.
The Indian wrestler jumped with joy in the middle of the mat. Moments later Sakshi Malik was hauled up on the shoulders of her coach Kuldeep Malik while she carried an Indian flag over her to celebrate.
Sakshi Malik had become the first Indian woman wrestler to win a medal at the Olympics.
"That's the best feeling of any athlete. I got to wave the Indian flag at such a big stage - that was my proudest moment."
A nation comprising over a billion celebrated back home. Sakshi Malik in her moment, literally and figuratively, had been flying the flag for India at Rio 2016. She won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in the same year.
Sakshi Malik has not been at her best since her bronze medal-winning feat at the Rio with a series of injuries impeding her performance. She failed to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.