Trial by fire: Protesting wrestlers return to mat, make the cut for Asian Championships

Indian wrestling was jolted in January after some of the top grapplers staged a protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brij Bhushan Singh, accusing him of sexual harassment and intimidation.

Most of the protestors, including the likes of Bajrang Punia, Ravi Dahiya, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik, have stayed away from competition citing different reasons. While they may be nursing injuries or at odds with those in power, three prominent voices – Anshu Malik, Sonam Malik and Sarita Mor – participated in the selection trials for next month’s Asian Championships on Saturday. The trio won, and are hoping to put the controversy behind them as they lead the charge for India in Astana.

“I don’t think it (the protests) will make a difference or will be a distraction,” Sonam’s father, Raj, said. “Regardless of what happens in the (Federation), I think Sonam is professional enough to give her best.”

Sonam qualified for the Asian Championship comfortably in the 62kg category, which hasn’t always been the case considering she has had to take on one of India’s best, Sakshi, in the past few years to qualify for important competitions.

After her Rio silver in 2016, Sakshi lost her grip on the 62kg category, losing three back-to-back bouts to Sonam and the Tokyo Olympics spot. But after Sonam suffered some injury setbacks of her own, Sakshi sealed her comeback by finally getting the better of her in the Commonwealth Games trial last year, before winning gold in Birmingham.

While the pair came together in the protests at Jantar Mantar last year, their rivalry has been one of the most closely fought in national wrestling, and Sonam will now be focused on proving herself in Astana, where getting past wrestlers from Japan – the gold standard in women’s wrestling – will be the greatest challenge.

“In the age groups and senior events, Sonam now has experience against some of the Japanese wrestlers,” Raj said. “In truth, she has proved she is capable of facing anyone on the mat, so the opponent is not what concerns me. I just pray that she is able to stay injury-free for a few years, so she can really give her best.”

Sonam’s good friend Anshu will also have the same concerns. After showing some of the fearlessness she has boasted of as a grappler in being vocal against what she considers was inappropriate behaviour from Sharan, Anshu has also struggled with injuries, with her elbow a persistent problem that kept her out of last year’s World Championships.

The 21-year-old went from being one of Indian wrestling’s promising prospects to one of its brightest stars almost overnight, and already has three Asian Championships medals, including the gold in 2021, and a Worlds silver. After recovering from her elbow injury woes, Anshu will be looking for a strong 2023, a year in which strong tests against wrestlers from Japan, China, and North Korea in the Asian Championships, Asian Games, and World Championships, which is a 2024 Paris Olympics qualifier.

While in different categories now, Anshu wrestles in the 57kg, the duo used to be fierce rivals at the local level in the akharas of Haryana. That rivalry has blossomed into a friendship as they have together represented India internationally. At 20 and 21 respectively, the pressures of being a world-class wrestler, on both the body and mind, must not have been easy.

“At a young age, competing at this level may have been hard and led to a few injuries. But I think the positive is that the physical development is yet to complete. The muscles will strengthen and then, the body will be more robust,” Raj said. “Mentally, I think Sonam will grow to become a cleverer wrestler. But there is no huge load of pressure on her, we have always told her a loss is a loss and nothing more. She has matured since she started competing abroad.”

In taking a stand for matters that have significance far beyond the wrestling mat this year, they have both displayed that maturity.

Elsewhere, Sarita Mor qualified for the Asian Championships in the 59kg category. The 27-year-old is a two-time gold medallist at the event, winning back-to-back in 2020 and 2021, and won bronze last year.

This time last year, Sarita had become the World No. 1, after a Worlds bronze in 2021 and strong showings at ranking series events. Hoping to rediscover that form, Sarita, who was a member of the protesting contingent in Delhi, will be looking to repeat the successful feats at the Asian event.

In normal circumstances, the competition would have been held in New Delhi, where it was originally scheduled to be held at the end of this month. However, the United World Wrestling moved the competition out of India in the aftermath of the protests and the ongoing investigations into the claims made against Sharan. And while these might not be normal times in Indian wrestling, the troika will be keen to bring the attention back to the wrestling mat next month.

India women’s squad for 2023 Asian C’ships:

Neelam (50kg)
Antim Panghal (53kg)
Sito (55kg)
Anshu Malik (57kg)
Sarita Mor (59kg)
Sonam Malik (62kg)
Manisha (65kg)
Nisha Dahiya (68kg)
Reetika (72kg)
Priya Malik (76kg)

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