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Friday, August 19, 2022

Sakshi’s golden comeback

The double leg has been Sakshi Malik’s calling card since early 2016, when she medalled at an international in Spain. It’s seen her through the highs of the sensational Olympic medal, and lay dormant through the last six years when losses piled up.

Resting dragon, lulled volcano, Hulk still buffering, call it what you like. Sakshi’s double leg attack, the signature of her success, was the boiling broth threatening to bubble and brim over. At Birmingham, Sakshi, a wounded beast of a wrestler, rediscovered the roar that comes with employing the move that’s come to define her.

Only, there was a cherry on the cold, biting frosting. The double leg done, she locked Anne Godinez’s arm into a position that the Canadian 62 kg opponent, a former rugby player, just couldn’t extricate herself out of.

Through the length of the Rio Games, Sakshi had made mincemeat of ridiculous leads, overcoming the deficits with her sudden double leg move that makes a mockery of momentums.

On Friday, she brought the menace of an underhook into her locking manoeuvre for a pin to make up a 0-4 trailing score, and win a much-desired gold at the Commonwealth Games. Godinez was sailing till then, able to repeatedly go for Sakshi’s right leg. The coaches could be heard telling, “Right bachaa le,” (protect the right foot).

Once the attacking waves were broken, Sakshi launched her counter. At the 2016 Olympics she would leave it for late. Here she picked her moment early in the second period, and pulled it off – the knockout like takedown stunning the opponent.

Godinez was left flailing her own fingers, after Sakshi first strangled her palm sinews – with her wicked fingers. The referee didn’t notice how she was working them into debilitating numbness, twisting and turning the knife in. And the Canadian admitted later that she was easy prey thereafter.

At 4-0 up, banking on predictable attacks – on Sakshi’s right leg – Godinez reckoned she had the gold pocketed. But she was the first to acknowledge the finger-squeeze was coming. And somewhere in the shadows lurked the incoming double leg. Still the speed with which it came left the young finalist in tears.

It softened her up, and left her bruised and literally mind-numbed. “I’m still not recovered. I knew it was coming, she’s known for her leg attack, but for 10 seconds I just couldn’t move,” the Canadian would say.

The three Canadian Godinez siblings are all into contact sports – wrestling, rugby and judo. Children of a refugee family from Mexico in Canada, Anne quickly rose to become the country’s best in a women’s wrestling program that is impressive in its scientific training for the elite athletes.

Canada had studied Sakshi minutely, deeply, very closely and reckoned she was beatable. It’s easy to plan against a wrestler whose gameplan is essentially one move. But it’s one thing to see the storm coming and another to stop it. A staggeringly strong Sakshi is a one-trick stallion but that one trick is essentially to drag down an entire carriageway, grounding it to dust.

Once the arm locked Godinez into a stupefying position, she simply couldn’t escape and was so hopelessly imbalanced, the fall was imminent. She would describe it as watching dam-walls burst in slow motion. The moment Godinez’d twist her torso, she was swinging into doom with the left leg giving way under the swivel, and the pinfall was inevitable.

The finger press kept pushing the Canadian into a corner, from where she just couldn’t defend. “I needed to get myself out of her grip. But I just couldn’t,” Godinez said, having endured several rugby tackles in her early years. Once the Sakshi move fetched up – locked her mangled fingers, Anne would see the end play out before her eyes like an out of body experience. One second, Sakshi had the hold, next she let go and then dragged her back into the double leg, topping the move with the arm lock…. stock, double barrel and all that.

The Canadian had been cheekily feinting through the first three minutes, her fingers elusive to Sakshi who was looking for an opening to close the fists into submission. But once Sakshi had Godinez cornered, there was no way out. A mostly static wrestler – Anne moves at frenetic pace, in comparison – Sakshi’s explosive power and sudden burst of activity, finished the Canadian.

Confidence crisis

It had been a confidence crisis that had dragged Sakshi back since the Rio medal. Under constant pressure to prove the medal was no fluke – an outrageous accusation in the first place – the repeated sniping at her, had pushed her into a vicious cycle. She would doubt herself and allow those flaggelations to eat away at her confidence. Then that would hurt her game, and bring on a fresh wave of snide remarks about her capabilities as a wrestler.

She had lapsed into believing she was a weakened force, if not a finished one. “I told myself I’m fitter than all younger opponents at home. I work harder than everyone else. I’d just had a few bad years. The confidence returned when I backed myself.”

It actually returned when she beat Sonam Malik at the trials. But also, just coaches telling her it’s OK to suffer a few losses and normal in a sportspersons’s career had calmed her down and helped yank away the Rio millstone.

Beating Sonam Malik in the trials was the last burst of confidence in her comeback which relies on pure training in wrestling, plugging away all the gaps in her game. Hardest in practice, toughest on the mat, Sakshi would build her game back into fortifying belief. The bronze began to show its enduring resilience. It was time for the gold.

The confidence was necessary to pull off that double leg move and the lock after trailing 0-4 against Godinez. It needs 100 percent output, and an explosive burst. Sakshi always had the power, and was one athlete who had never been injured, pointing to her natural ability. But she was at Birmingham to complete the three-medal bronze-silver-gold set, and for the first time hear the national anthem that is earned with the top podium. Never asking for rest from her coaches, always on the ball, Sakshi had craved winning, but loved the craft of wrestling always. She got restless if training was cancelled. The hunger to prove herse once and for all, was now oozing through her preparation.

Her coaches at the camp would start treating her as a senior, who loved training and was finding renewed focus.

The gold came when she believed she was ready, after a lot of soul-searching about what was going wrong – only to find it was nothing but her jangled self belief. A psychologist would assign her homework to repeat to herself how good she was. She had no qualms admitting that mental strength came from peaking in the physical one.

Ultimately, it was her innate instinct, her first skin that brought her the big medal – the tried, tested and tormenting leg double. “I’ve played more double leg attacks than eaten morsels of food at a meal. It’s a part of me,” she would joke. “It just falls into place.” It kicked in. Then she locked it with a wicked arm hook, to win it all in a matter of seconds, impressing an arena that was glad for return of the champion.

Last chance

Sakshi was realistic in thinking this could well be her last Commonwealth Games. At 28, it was staring her in the face. “I had silver (2014) and bronze (2018). This time i wanted only a gold,” she would say later.

“Times had been rough, up and down. But I’m not a machine,” she would find a voice to say, after this comeback. Expecting her to win each time she set foot on the mat, had had a scarring effect on her, inviting more taunts than she’d originally reckoned would come with a medal. Training at her own akhara, under her father in law had helped her settle her nerves.

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Still the question remained why despite sorting out her diet, staying fit, getting more powerful than before why the good results had eluded her. Winning could sort her out, and at CWG Sakshi Malik, finally won. She surprised many with her move, shocked the daylights out of Godinez even. But for once, she didn’t need validation to know she was a very, very good wrestler. This time, she knew.

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