Against all odds

Against all odds

By PREETI SINGH | | 17 September, 2016
Sakshi Malik.
When the morale of Indian athletes and their supporters hit an all-time low at this year’s Olympic Games in Rio, wrestler Sakshi Malik turned the tide by winning the first medal for her country, a hard-fought bronze. She speaks to Preeti Singh about what this victory means to her and how she prepared for it.

Let’s begin with your first steps on the road to Rio 2016. How did you prepare for the Olympic Games? And how was it different from preparing for other tournaments? 

A. Preparing for Olympics is really different from getting ready for any other game. Six months’ training, or even a whole year’s preparation, is not enough if you’re aiming for a target as big as the Olympic Games. As for me, I started preparing for it right from the moment I started doing professional wrestling, when I started developing my understanding of this game. Ever since childhood I had dreamt of winning a medal in the Olympics for my country. And all this while, we kept preparing for other games as well. But to be precise, I’d been preparing for the Games since the last 12 years. 

Q. You recently said that you won this medal not because of your strength but because of your technique in the game. Could you elaborate on that? 

A. In this sport, in wrestling, you require everything. To being a good wrestler, you need power, match technique, grasping ability, as well as great strength. It is the only sport where you need to excel in everything right from power down to technique to be able to succeed. 

Q. Could you talk about your childhood days as a budding sportsperson in Rohtak, Haryana? When did you actually decide to take up wrestling professionally?

A. When I was small, I would participate in several sporting events of various kinds in school. But I always wanted to take up a sport that would enable me to build a professional career. Also, in the world of wrestling, there were many big names from whom I drew inspiration. My grandfather was also a wrestler — he was someone who influenced me a lot. So finally, like him, I decided to become a wrestler too.  

Q. Any other Indian wrestlers, apart from your grandfather, who inspired you in this endeavour? 

A. I really see Sushil Kumar ji as a great source of inspiration. Especially when he won a bronze medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Similarly, Yogeshwar Dutt ji, his performance in 2012, really encouraged me to believe that India can actually do well in wrestling internationally. These sporting icons in a way opened the doors for all of us who harboured similar dreams of winning Olympic medals for India.

“Initially, people would say things like, as a girl, I should not be wrestling: “It’s a boy’s game!” Many of them continuously taunted me, saying that I won’t be able to achieve anything in this game. 

Q. What sort of challenges did you have to face in your personal journey? Was it difficult to be a woman wrestler in Haryana, a state where gender issues are always a cause for concern? 

A. Initially, when I started doing wrestling, I did face lot of difficulties. People would say things like, as a girl, I should not be wrestling: “It’s a boy’s game!” Many of them continuously taunted me, saying that I won’t be able to achieve anything in this game. I also used to lose my bouts initially, and at such points, people around me discouraged me a lot. There were other challenges as well. I had to go to school, manage my tuition classes, and all the rest of the time I had to devote myself to training. My school was seven kilometres away from my place, so I used to travel 14 kilometres daily by bicycle and then go for training. I used to spend three hours, both in the morning and evening, at my training sessions. So it was a very difficult journey altogether initially. Still, in the midst of all this, my parents always supported me.  One thing is certain, though. Things get difficult for a girl here if she decides to go for professional sports. But since our girls have started winning medals, this regressive mentality is beginning to really change, and as a result, many have started promoting girls in professional sports. 

Q. You have earlier said that since there were not enough girls in your hometown to train with, you often used to train with the boys. Did such challenges help you in your later career?

A. Yes, it was all very tough. When I started wrestling, there were only 4-5 girls along with me. But yes, my performance started improving over time since I was training with the boys. This was a test of my strength, which increased with every bout I participated in. 

Q. Coming back to the question of gender prejudices, there’s a serious problem of female foeticide in the state of Haryana, a practice that you yourself have spoken very strongly against. In this context, the emergence of an icon like you can make all the difference. Do you think the mindsets of people are changing now?

A. Female foeticide is really a problem in Haryana. The female-to-male ratio has also been really low. But of late, things have changed a lot. There is a difference now in our society, and the recent Olympic medals have contributed to changing mindsets. In every field, women are becoming leaders. All this has really made a big difference. I still believe, though, that there should be gender equality, and there should be counselling sessions for people everywhere in order to promote the girl child. 

Q. What are your expectations now from the government authorities? Now that women are winning more medals than men in Indian sports, what can be done to encourage more women to take up professional sports?  

A. The Haryana government is really doing good work in sports. But I want to suggest that there should be proper wrestling matches organised in villages and nearby stadiums. There should be proper equipment and training centres with gyms and medical facilities, which would boost the performance of our athletes. Also, if regular health checks are conducted, I believe it would good for the sport. If these minute details are taken care of by the government, I think more talent would emerge from our villages. There is no dearth of talent in villages; it just needs to be explored. 

Q. Any message that you’d like conveyed to young girls aspiring to become sport stars one day?

A. By bringing Olympic medals to our homeland, I think as women, we have proved that girls can do wonders in any field; and that we are no less than the boys. The only message that I would like to give is this: whatever field you’d like to pursue, be open to your parents about your aspirations. Sitting at home would not get you anything. You must come out and speak your mind so that you bring some change in your society and in your country. 

Q. You are now appointed as the Wrestling Director at Rohtak University. Do you have any plans to promote girls in sports through this office? 

A.  I am focusing on my career first. I would also love to promote women in sports and will try to do as much I can to support them. I would try to get them all the facilities they deserve. 

Q. What are your future plans? 

A.  I would start training for future tournaments, and of course for the next Olympics Games, soon. 

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