Shortly after winning a gold medal in the women's 60kg category at the Asian Cadet Championships in the Uzbek city of Tashkent, wrestler Anshu Malik received a compliment that was perhaps worth just as much as the medal.
Her Japanese rival Natami Ruka walked up to her and asked, "How do you train?"
There's little surprise the 17-year-old considers it a memorable moment. The Japanese have won 11 of the 18 gold medals awarded in the history of women's wrestling at the Olympics. "In women's wrestling there is no better country than Japan. You can count on your fingertips (just once in the senior women's category) the times an Indian has beaten them at any level," says Ramchandra Pawar, coach of the team that competed in Tashkent.
It's all the more remarkable that Malik has managed this feat twice now. The first came against Naomi Ruike in the final of the World Cadet Championships last year. Even then, Malik had hardly been able to comprehend the magnitude of her achievement. "Whenever I got a chance to compete against the Japanese wrestlers, I would always ask them what exactly they did. I always wanted to know how they trained. Even last year I had asked them, even though I had beaten them," she recalls.
That had always been the case for Malik. While Indian juniors have no shortage of domestic wrestlers - both male and female to idolize, Malik had always been drawn to the legendary greats of Japanese pantheon. "My role model had always been Kaori Icho. She's won the Olympics four times. I always try and watch her videos on YouTube."
While her role models might have been foreign, Malik followed a typically Indian path to the wrestling mat. Her uncle Pawan represented India in the SAFF Games, while her father Dharamvir was a wrestler with the CRPF before retiring in order to better support his daughter. "When she was 11, she saw her brother going for wrestling practice and she insisted that she wanted to go as well. We are from a family of wrestlers so I felt that was a good idea," says father Dharamvir.
Malik enjoyed an early advantage unlike many of her peers. Nidani is home to the Chaudhary Bharat Singh Memorial School, which has a strong bent towards sports. "We never had to travel very far to get her good coaching and support. Her first coach was a Georgian wrestler who taught her very strong basics and encouraged her to compare herself to the best wrestlers in the world and not just India," says Dharamvir.
Indeed, Malik has been amongst India's most consistent youth level wrestlers in international competition. In 2016 she won a silver at the Asian Championships, followed by a bronze at the 2017 edition. Ever since that tournament, she has been unbeaten in all competitions.
She's improved steadily, learning from every competition. "I always enjoy wrestling against the Japanese because you learn the most from them," says Malik. The lesson she values most came at the 2017 World Championships. "They don't break their bodies like we do in India. They might not be as strong as you are, but their technique is perfect. That is what makes them so good," she says.
That isn't to say Malik doesn't have her own strengths. "Her main ability is her endurance. She will keep wrestling against an opponent until they get tired. She is also very intelligent. In the final against Japan, she knew that she could not allow her opponent to get into a stable position so she never let the match go to the ground," says Pawar.
With a strong track record in the cadet age category, Malik is now hopeful of carrying on her performances in the junior and eventually senior categories too. Until now she has been denied permission to compete against senior wrestlers but that will change soon. She's already preparing for the transition. The level she wants to compete at is unsurprisingly that set by Icho. "She remains my role model. Right now there is so much of a gap between us. She is superior to me in every way. But I will get more experience and improve as a wrestler," she says. It's an example of the lofty standards she has sets for herself that she says her goal is to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. "I've never met Kaori Icho. But I hope I can meet her in Tokyo. That would be a great feeling," she says.