Throughout the World Cadet Championships that concluded in Sofia, Bulgaria on Sunday, Sonam Malik showed little signs that she would be slowed down in pursuit of the title. From the time she stepped on to the competition mat, to the moment she sealed her 7-1 win over Binbin Xiang of China, Sonam conceded all of three points while scoring 27 points of her own. The gold medal she brought back to India will share space at her home in Madina village in Haryana's Sonepat district with another two won at the World Cadet (U-17) Championships - a gold medal in 2017 and a bronze medal in 2018.
Sonam is in good company. Only one other Indian wrestler -- double Olympic medalist Sushil Kumar -- has won two Cadet World Championships gold medals.
It could have been an unprecedented three, but the 2018 bronze, while not her best result is also a reminder that she should be glad she's still wrestling at all. Two years ago, the right arm that the referee raised in triumph in Sofia had become all but useless.
Sonam had first felt a twinge of uneasiness in her arm shortly after her first world cadet win in Athens in 2017. "We thought it was a routine ache that you get while training," says her coach Ajmer Malik. He felt the pain would go away on its own. "She told me her arm is burning, we believed in our desi system, so we told her to keep practising. We also did some massage and applied haldi (turmeric) paste but she kept saying her arm and hand were hurting. Then suddenly one day her hand just stopped moving during a state level match. It was as if that side was paralysed. She had won two matches but she just couldn't compete and so she had to retire from the competition," he says.
Sonam says her arm just stopped responding to her will. "You could hold my arm up and I couldn't keep it raised. My hand couldn't even grip anything with any strength," she says. The diagnosis was that the nerves in her shoulder were simply not transmitting any impulses down to her arm. "The doctor told her to forget about her game and think of how she would live from now on," says coach Malik.
"He said it would be in my kismat (destiny) if I would manage to recover," says Sonam.
Forgoing wrestling though, wasn't an option. "It's my most favourite thing to do," she says. She was destined to be a wrestler perhaps. Her father Rajender had wrestled before her but had stopped after beginning work at a sugar mill. However, when his friend Ajmer Malik, an Army subedar, had opened a wrestling akhara in the village following his retirement, 11-year-old Sonam was sent to learn. "She was a natural talent. She also had that fighting spirit which you need as a wrestler. She was always one to take on the boys and would never back down," says Malik.
Success wasn't too far away as she won titles at the district and then state level and earned a place on the national team. She returned with a bronze at her first international tournament - the Asian Cadet Championships and followed that up with her first gold at the Worlds. Then, that first serious setback of her career.
It was her fighting spirit that took her through. Advised complete rest, she returned to the akhara and with her arm unresponsive, worked on her leg strength instead. "Game mein sangharsh to hota hai. Piche nahi hatti thi (There is struggle in sport and she wouldn't step back)," says her coach.
"God has given me a second chance at wrestling. I will make it count" Sonia Malik
The 'kismat' her doctor spoke about, ruled in her favour. Four months after it stopped responding to stimulus, Sonam's arm regained movement once again. With another two months of basic training, nearly six months after she first picked up her injury, she took part in the state tournament and won, followed by another gold at the nationals. She was competing nearly nine kilos heavier than she had done - because she didn't want to risk injury with a weight cut. "I still don't know how I managed to win. I had no preparation and my arm was still very weak. But somehow it worked for me," she says.
The Worlds was a different matter though. She lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champion - Honoka Nakai of Japan. Despite the fact that it was a near miracle to be playing at the world level once again, she was deeply disappointed. "Whenever she competed, she always believed she was the best wrestler. So. from that mindset, the bronze isn't good enough. Thodi mayoosi thi (there was some dejection)" says Malik.
That gloom was replaced by a renewed dedication in the training room. "I knew that if she avoided injury, there's no one who could beat her. Luckily, her nerve issue hasn't troubled her after that. She picked up an elbow injury in the semifinals in Sofia but even then I was confident that she would win," he says.
The gold medal was the perfect way for Sonam, who turned 17 this year, to cap the last year of her eligibility at the Cadets. She had hoped to compete at the World Juniors in Tallinn, Estonia but was told by the Federation that she couldn't compete in both the cadets and juniors in the same year.
The next target is the seniors. That will come with its own set of challenges. She's already racked up a few wins over top level Indian talent at local competition - including a win over Sarita Mor, who will represent India at the World Championships in September. Sonam, though, is ready for what lies ahead. "God has given me a second chance at wrestling. I will make it count," she says.