India's Sakshi Malik pulled off a minor miracle to overturn a 5-0 deficit against reigning Asian champion Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan, clocking eight points in the second period of play to win India's first ever women's wrestling medal in the 58kg category on Wednesday. The 23-year-old Sakshi's bronze is also the first medal won by India at the 2016 Olympics and she becomes the first Indian to have won a medal on Olympic debut.
"My hard work has paid off and I have lived up to India's expectations by becoming the first female wrestler to win a medal for the country," Sakshi said later. "I hope that the other Indian wrestlers who are yet to compete will win more medals for India. I had faith in my ability and knew that I all I had to do was hang on till the end. Going into the repechage round I was confident of winning a medal and gave it my all."
The bout started in a cagey manner. Sakshi was the first to attack her opponent, following a failed attack on her leg by Tynybekova, but failed to open her account. Sakshi was penalised for passivity around halfway through the first period, following which Tynybekova was able to register four points on the bounce with swift grabs of Sakshi's ankles to take a 5-0 lead into the halfway mark of the bout. Sakshi showed her match awareness by swiftly moving out of bounds on both attacks to keep the damage to a minimum.
In the early part of the second period, Sakshi tried to attack her opponent's leg, but Tynybekova was able to keep her defence intact to begin with. With just two minutes left on the clock, Sakshi went on an aggressive blitz, and was able to bring herself to parity with just a few seconds left, scoring 2, 2 and 1. At that stage, though the score was 5-5, the bronze was within reach of Tynybekova as she had pulled off the higher scoring manoeuvre for the match. But Sakshi took the attack to her opponent in the last five seconds and was able to turn her over at the edge of the danger zone. The score was 7-5 as the time ran out, and the Indian corner started celebrating even as the Kyrgyzstan corner lodged a protest. Their referral was rejected, however, and a penalty point added to India to make it an 8-5 win on points.
Earlier in the day, Sakshi had to come back from facing a deficit midway through both her first bouts, beating Johanna Mattsson of Sweden 5-4 and then Mariana Cherdivara 5-5 to set up a quarterfinal clash with former world championship silver medallist Valeriia Koblova of Russia. Koblova overcame some stiff resistance from Sakshi to post a 9-2 victory, and then went through to set up a final against Kaori Icho of Japan, which opened up a path for Sakshi to win a bronze medal via repechage.
She beat Orkhon Purevdorj of Mongolia 12-3 to set up the bronze medal match against Tynybekova. The win over Tynybekova has made Sakshi the first Indian to have secured a wrestling medal on an Olympic debut.
She also becomes the fourth Indian to have won wrestling medals at the Olympics after Khashaba Jadhav (bronze in 1952), Sushil Kumar (bronze in 2008 and silver in 2012) and Yogeshwar Dutt (bronze in 2012). Sakshi's finish is now the best by far for an Indian woman at the Olympics -- Geeta Phogat was eliminated in the 55 kg round of 16 in 2012, while Geeta's cousin Vinesh had to withdraw during her 48 kg quarterfinal earlier on Wednesday.
Sakshi had begun aggressively against Purevdorj -- best known for having snapped three-time Olympic champion Kaori Icho's 13-year-old unbeaten streak at the Krasnoyarsk Grand Prix in January - and registered the first two points of the bout inside the first 10 seconds. Purevdorj would fight back with a takedown of her own to take the bout 2-2 into the breather between the three-minute periods.
Sakshi was penalised one point for passivity early in the second period, but then effected a double-leg takedown to take the initiative in the bout. From then on, it appeared to be one-way traffic as Sakshi effected three successive takedowns that gave her two points for each move, eventually winning with a margin close enough for technical superiority.
Sakshi had begun the day with two come-from-behind victories, 5-4 over Johanna Mattsson of Sweden and 5-5 against Mariana Cherdivara of Moldova, before she was beaten 9-2 by Valeriia Koblova of Russia in the quarterfinals. Since Koblova advanced to set up a final clash against the reigning three-time champion Icho, Sakshi has been given a chance through repechage to fight for bronze.
Koblova, the 2014 World Championship silver medalist, was the first to register a point in the quarterfinal, when Sakshi was penalised for passivity on the 1 minute, 14 second mark. The rest of the first period saw both wrestlers looking for openings by attacking the leg, but good defensive counters saw the Russian take a 1-0 lead to the second period.
The second period began well for Sakshi, as she pushed Koblova off the mat close to the four-minute mark to take a 2-1 lead. When Sakshi went for her next attack, Koblova showed great technical prowess to convert it into an attacking position, lodging four points on the trot and nearly pinning Sakshi in the process. Though the Indian wrestler was able to get herself out of that lock, she found herself trailing 7-2 and had to throw caution to the winds in the dying seconds of the match, which Koblova took advantage of to nearly complete a pinfall for the second time. She was given two points though, as she won by a comfortable seven-point margin.
In her earlier matches, Sakshi had come back from 4-0 down to beat Johanna Mattsson of Sweden 5-4, before beating Mariana Cherdivara 5-5 after trailing 3-0 at the halfway point of the round of 16 bout.
Cherdivara, who had picked up the silver at the 2011 junior world championships, started in a more aggressive manner, forcing Sakshi on to the back foot. At the minute mark, the referee cautioned Sakshi for passivity, following which she was given 30 seconds to register a point. Cherdivara defended stoutly, and the penalty point went to the Moldovan at the end of the 30 seconds. On the two-minute mark, Sakshi went for the leg of her opponent, but failed to turn her over, which Cherdivara capitalised on to lodge two points and take a 3-0 lead at the break.
In the second period, it was Cherdivara who was penalised for passivity, and Sakshi would lodge her first point as a result, leaving the match poised at 3-1. Soon after, Sakshi would attack Cherdivara's leg again to execute a perfect double-leg takedown, that took her up 5-3. Even though Cherdivara responded with a two-point manoeuvre towards the closing stages of the second period, the final score of 5-5 left Sakshi the winner by separation criteria, as she had the single highest scoring move.
Earlier, she became first Indian female wrestler to win a bout at the Olympics. Mattson, who won a bronze at the World Championships in 2010 and is ranked three in the world, led 4-0 at the end of the first round after she put Sakshi in the danger position.
In the second period, Sakshi won two points after managing to push Mattson out of the mat. Sakshi, who's appearing in her maiden Olympics, went for the kill in the second round and added another point with twenty seconds to go when she pushed Mattson out of the mat again.