Sakshi Malik: I'm not over my Rio medal yet

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After nearly a five-month break, Olympic medallist Sakshi Malik will return to the mat in the Pro Wrestling League in January, where she will feature for the Delhi Sultans team. Despite the long layoff, Sakshi made it a point to train at the Chotu Ram Akhara in Rohtak, Haryana. While the first few weeks after the Olympics saw her training sporadically, she has been regular for the past couple of months. It hasn't been easy. "Sabse difficult tha dum banana (Increasing stamina was the most difficult)," she says. "Power remains [but] stamina is the main problem. It takes time to recover."

Ever since the Rio Games, Sakshi has not strayed far from the public eye. She has given interviews, featured in Vogue, appeared on TV shows, been signed on as a brand ambassador for a car company and walked the ramp. The attention was justified. Competing in the women's 58kg category, Sakshi had after all won a historic Olympic bronze -- the first Indian woman wrestler to do so. Badminton player PV Sindhu, who won an Olympic silver at Rio, was also the recipient of similar levels of adulation.

Sindhu has continued to build on her Olympic achievements on the court. Following a well-deserved rest, she has resumed a busy schedule on the international badminton calendar. But Sakshi has not featured in a competitive wrestling match since August 17. She skipped the wrestling nationals in October and then the Commonwealth Championships the next month.

But now it is time to return to action. The transition back to a regular wrestling diet from fast food snatched on the go was not easy. "Kuch bhi khate the (We ate everything during the felicitations)," she says. "Now you've to restart a proper diet. I had to start watching my fats and carbs all over again. I had to prepare to start making weight all over again." It's a brutal shift, one Sakshi is well familiar with. But it was something she was also eager to resume. "It isn't as if cutting weight is best feeling," she says. "There's been time when I would barely eat for three days, sometimes not even take a sip of water. But after winning the medal you want to go back to doing it all over again."

That's because despite returning with a bronze, Sakshi isn't quite satisfied. "I still think of the bouts I had," she says. "I think: 'Shit, yaar yeh kya galti ho gaye (Shit, what a mistake I made). I think how I could've wrestled differently and perhaps won it." Sakshi says the Olympics were a huge learning experience. "Before I went to the Olympics, I think I just had beginners' knowledge," she says. "I had just 40% knowledge about wrestling. After the Olympics I realized how much more there's to learn. In the past my game was very simple: it would be attack, defence, counter. Now my brain starts to think how many possibilities there are. Even when I eventually leave wrestling, I don't know when I'll have proper knowledge of wrestling."

But if the Olympics made her realize her shortcomings, they also made her believe in her self-worth. "It boosted my confidence tremendously," says Sakshi. "It has changed my mindset when I train and when I'm on the mat too." Indeed, coaches say Sakshi's wrestling has improved tremendously since her return from Rio. Coach Mandeep Singh, who trains Sakshi in Rohtak, says it's not easy finding sparring partners for her now. "We've several girls who train with us, but for Sakshi we have to have some of the younger boys give her practice," he says.

"In the past my game was very simple: it would be attack, defence, counter. Now my brain starts to think how many possibilities there are."

So, the Pro Wrestling League, which begins on January 3, will also serve as valuable practice for Sakshi. The 58kg pool features Geeta Phogat among the Indians and also Tunisia's Marwa Amri, who won the bronze alongside Sakshi in Rio. "We'll have to wrestle together but because the tournament is happening in Delhi, we'll be training together too," she says. "I'll have so many partners. I'll get a chance to train with the 48kg wrestlers and with the 53kg wrestlers as well."

For Sakshi, the league will also serve as the stepping stone to future targets -- the Asian Championships in mid-2017 and the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games. She has also requested that Indian wrestlers play more international competitions.

These are all tournaments she has to start planning for. And at some point the Olympic medal will have to be consigned to the rear-view mirror. But not anytime soon. "Pagal ho kya (Are you mad)?" she says when asked if she is done thinking about the Rio Olympics. "I've still not got over the fact that I've won a medal. This will never get old. Poore India mein sirf mere paas hai (Only I have one in all of India)."