On August 18, India's run at the 2016 Rio Olympics appeared to be on the same disastrous course as it had been for the previous twelve days of the Games. It had been a forgettable near-fortnight of near misses, underwhelming performances, off-field drama and overall failure. It was left to Sakshi Malik to give that sorry campaign a measure of respectability. Competing in the 58kg women's freestyle division, Sakshi was down 5-0 in her bronze medal bout against Aisuluu Tynybekova of Kyrgyzstan. But the 24-year-old from Rohtak, Haryana would recover strongly. A takedown in the dying seconds of her bout against the reigning Asian Champion sealed the win and breathed fresh life into the Indian campaign.
Sakshi's Olympic bronze was the first by an Indian woman wrestler. It was, for the most part, an unexpected one. It would be fair to say that few outside the die-hard wrestling community would have recognised Sakshi Malik before August 18. Even at the Olympics, the consensus was that Vinesh Phogat, India's representative in the 48kg division, had the best prospects.
Even in the 58kg class, Sakshi had long lived in the shadow of her illustrious predecessor Geeta Phogat, who was the first Indian woman wrestler to win a Commonwealth Games gold medal and the first to qualify for Rio. Indeed, even though Sakshi had beaten Geeta in the first Pro Wrestling League, it was the senior wrestler who was given the first chance to earn an Olympic quota in the 58kg division.
Sakshi was only given a chance after Geeta was suspended for 'indiscipline' after one qualifying tournament. Sakshi grabbed the opportunity and secured the quota spot in the final Olympic qualifying tournament. She made a habit of coming back when all seemed lost at Rio too. Before her bronze medal-winning bout, she recovered from a points deficit in three of her four matches.
Sakshi's win was critical for wrestling, which features only fleetingly - every four years in fact - in public consciousness. Sushil Kumar had made the first breakthrough, with a bronze in Beijing eight years ago and then a silver at London four years later. Yogeshwar Dutt with his London bronze had played his part too. Both are at the end of their careers.
Sakshi is now the face of wrestling in the country. It's a heavy responsibility but if her showing at Rio is any proof, she can shoulder that burden well.