Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

My self-belief helped me overcome tough times: Sakshi Malik

The 30-year-old Commonwealth Games medallist talks about dealing with the pressures of expectations, never giving up on one's dreams and becoming a role model for young girls aspiring to be wrestlers

Naini Thaker
Published: Feb 18, 2023 09:30:32 AM IST
Updated: Feb 24, 2023 04:24:17 PM IST

My self-belief helped me overcome tough times: Sakshi MalikSakshi Malik of Team India celebrates after defeating Ana Godinez Gonzalez (red) of Team Canada during the Women's Freestyle 62 kg Gold Medal match on day eight of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games at on August 05, 2022 on the Coventry, England. Image Credit: Al Bello/Getty Images

Q. What inspired you to take up wrestling?
I was interested in sports from the beginning. In school, every time there was some sports activity, I'd want to take part in it. That's how I got interested in sports… I'd always come first in any sports-related activity, be it sprints, shotput or kho kho. I would perform well and got a lot of joy out of the medals I won at school.  
 
Eventually, I knew that I needed to pick up a sport out of which I could make a career. Luckily, close to home there was a stadium where there was wrestling. Till then, I didn't even know it was called wrestling. I tried my hand at lots of other sports, but something about wrestling just clicked and I told my parents that I wanted to pursue that sport. That's when I found out that my grandfather used to wrestle in the village dangals [wrestling competitions] as well.
 
Q. There wouldn't have been too many women wrestlers when you started. How challenging was it for you?
My parents have always been extremely supportive of my choice of wrestling as a career. They would have been alright even if I had chosen to take up further studies. But my extended family would tell my parents, "Yeh kaunse sport mein daal diya hai? Kaise kapde pehenti hai? Kaisa iska physique ho jaayega? Koi shaadi bhi nai karega [What is this sport that she's taken up? What kind of clothes does she wear? What will happen to her physique? No one will marry her]. They would taunt a lot, but my parents never let these conversations affect me… they only supported me. Also, initially, there were barely three to four girls in my wrestling class. Finding proper partners was tough… we would have to train and fight with the boys. 

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Q. What were the initial hurdles? How could you overcome them?
In the early days, I had to struggle a lot. For instance, my school was at 6.30 am and my training was also at the same time. I had to go to school and balance it with my training. I would wake up at 4 am and practice extra, so that I didn't miss training and reached school on time. I would have to travel 7 km on cycle to go to school, and so many times, the boys would see me and say: "Ladka hai ya ladki samjah mein he nahi aata [Is she a boy or a girl? We can’t make out who is she]. My parents would give me milk to take to school so that I gain strength, but other children would make fun of me, saying, "School mein bhi doodh laati hai [She gets milk to school as well]." I would feel depressed at getting bullied at school daily.
 
My dream back then was to be the best in India and sit in an airplane. That was my first target. So, as I started getting medals, and achieved this dream, what people said didn't matter to me. My attitude was: "Bolne do, muhjhe koi farak nai padta [Let them say what they want to, it doesn't matter to me].” I had to shut out all the noise and focus on my goals.
 
Q. When did you first sit in an airplane?
My first international tournament was in Russia in 2008. The night before my flight, I could barely sleep because I was very nervous. I would wonder… all those people who sit on flights, what would they be like? How rich would they be? But the first experience was good, and I was excited… it was truly a dream come true.
 
Q. What lessons did you learn from the initial hurdles that you went through?
I learnt that you need to have self-belief more than anything else. No matter what anyone says, you need to stick to achieving your goals and targets. I knew I had the passion for wrestling, and the love for the sport. So, no matter what happened and no matter what people said, "Muhje bas lage rehna hai [I have to keep going]".
 
Even recently, right before the Commonwealth Games (CWG), when I was going through a slightly rough patch, people would say, "Iska toh career khatam ho gaya [Her career is over]." But I knew I will and I can bounce back. And I did just that.

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Q. You won the gold medal at 2022 Birmingham CWG, making it your third straight medal at the CWG. How do you deal with this pressure of expectations?
When I won the bronze medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics in the 58 kg weight category, people were hopeful that I'll get a medal at the Olympics too. Expectations are always there, but the reality is that an athlete will always see ups and downs… it will never be that we will constantly keep winning medals. We give our 100 percent for every single competition, and no athlete likes to lose. At the end of the day, we aren't machines right? However, no matter what happens, the mindset is to keep going at any point of time. Every time I go through a low phase, I think about how I want to prove all the naysayers wrong.
 
Q. Were there times during your tough phases when you felt like quitting?
Never. No matter how many losses I went through or the number of tough days I encountered… the thought of quitting never crossed my mind simply because I love the sport so much. In fact, I would fear that if I keep losing… I won't be forced to quit, right?

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Q. You come from a small village in Rohtak, Haryana. A lot of girls look up to you. What would be your advice to them?
First, it is a matter of great pride for me to know that so many parents have changed their mindsets because of me. Earlier, there were very few women wrestlers… as I started winning more medals, so many wrestling centres opened in my hometown. Now, there are so many girls who go there for coaching. Their parents ask me: "Hum aisa kya kare ki humari beti aap jaisi bann jaaye? [What should we do so that our daughter becomes like you?]" Their mindset has changed completely—earlier no one would even think of their daughter becoming a wrestler, which is predominantly a men's sport. The girls who started wrestling by looking at me… those same girls are now playing international tournaments with me. I feel so proud!