Five months after winning a historic bronze at the Rio Olympics, Sakshi Malik will step on the mat for a competitive bout again on Friday. Representing the Delhi Sultans franchise of the Pro Wrestling League, Sakshi will take on Pooja Dhanda of Jaipur Ninjas in the women's 58kg category. While the six-team wrestling tournament has already featured a number of Olympic medallists and world champions take the mat over the first three days, Sakshi will be the highest profile Indian to step on the mat.
Returning to competition after a long layoff post the Olympics will not be easy. Fellow Olympian Babita Kumari, who was also returning to competitive action following Rio, played her first match for UP Dangal on Wednesday. Competing in the 53kg category, Babita was pinned in 46 seconds by Haryana Hammers' Sofia Mattsson, who had won bronze at Rio.
Babita likely drew the short straw as her franchise -- as per league rules -- had the option of blocking an opponent who they feel their wrestler is unlikely to beat. On Wednesday, the UP Dangal team blocked Olympic bronze medalist Marwa Amri to shield Geeta Phogat in the 58kg category.
Being an icon player, Sakshi can't delay her comeback. It remains to be seen whether the months-long period of interviews, TV appearances and felicitations have had an impact on her wrestling abilities. Sakshi's coach at the Olympics Kuldeep Singh admits that returning after a period of inactivity will be hard, but believes she can cope. "You need some time to return to your best especially if you haven't taken part in any competition. But Sakshi is a very experienced wrestler. She will be able to cover the gap," he says.
Mandeep Singh, who coaches Sakshi at Rohtak's Chotu Ram Stadium, believes that the gap is a lot narrower than what more cynical minds might expect. "Sakshi lost a bit of time because she was constantly having to fly from one function to another, but she made it a point to come in and train whenever she could. Some days she would train early in the morning and then leave immediately after," he says.
But those weeks of infrequent training are over. "For the last month, Sakshi has been training full time. She is much more knowledgable than she was a few months back. Because her level has improved beyond what the girls at the academy, she is sparring against the younger boys now," he says.
Sakshi's opponent on Friday, Pooja Dhanda, isn't the worst opponent to get in a comeback bout. She was once a top prospect - winning silver at the 2010 Youth Olympics and then a gold and bronze at the Commonwealth and Asian Championships in 2013 and 2014 respectively. However, she subsequently suffered an ACL injury to her right knee and was out of action for nearly two years. Having missed the National Championships this year, she has returned at the PWL with a win in her first bout.
Dhanda must believe she could pull off a giant killing act of her own. The Pro Wrestling League has been a platform for wrestlers to make a name for themselves. Sakshi would know. Last season, she beat Geeta Phogat, who was then considered the dominant grappler in the women's 58kg category.