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Next-gen wrestlers shine as Anshu, Sonam stun seniors at trials

Sonam Malik is only the second Indian to win two gold medals at the Cadet World Championships United World Wrestling

As they gathered around their hostel building at the Sports Authority of Lucknow, at the conclusion of Saturday's selection trials, some of India's senior women wrestlers tried to take stock of the situation.

"This wasn't like any other senior trials I've seen before. This was more like a cadet national championships," joked former Asian champion Navjot Kaur.

The remark made sense considering the nature of upsets on the day. Two of Indian wrestling's biggest names had been taken out by girls who haven't yet competed at the senior level.

First, 2018 World bronze medalist Pooja Dhanda was beaten 3-1 by 18-year-old Junior Asian champion Anshu Malik in the 57kg category, before Olympic bronze medalist Sakshi Malik was edged out 11-10 by reigning cadet world champion Sonam Malik in the women's 62kg division. Their wins at the selection trials meant that the two girls will get a chance to compete at the Asian Championships next month and should they pick up a medal there, they will earn the opportunity to take part at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in March.

Sonam was not even expected to be part of the trial, since she hasn't competed at the junior (Under-19) age category nationals. She was included only a couple of days ago at the insistence of the Wrestling Federation of India president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

"We had actually been trying to get her to compete at the selection trials for the senior World Championships because she had just won the World cadet championships but we were refused because she was underage," Sonam's coach Ajmer Singh said.

He was not expecting the invitation for the trial to come this year as well.

"We only got to know a couple of days ago. But we were training continuously in my center in our village so we were ready."

Still, it was one thing to compete and an entirely different one to beat one of the biggest names in women's wrestling in India.

"I don't think anyone expected her to win. I don't even think Sonam thought she will win. Maybe just a little bit. But I told her there was nothing expected from her.

"Even if she lost here, she would still have many chances to take part at the Olympics after this. If she got the chance to compete against Sakshi, she had to play without fear and only try and avoid any obvious mistakes."

Wrestling a near perfect game, Sonam wore down her senior opponent. With just a couple of seconds to go and trailing 6-10, she flipped Sakshi over her hip to pick up four points and the win.

While the victory came as a huge shock to Sonam - who put her hands to her head in disbelief - as much as anyone watching the match, many were expecting Anshu to cement her claim to being the current best in the women's 57kg division.

Just a few months older than Sonam, Anshu had competed at the selection trials for the world championships last year. Indeed, she had nearly pinned Dhanda in the first half of their bout but had got her senior opponents shoulders on the mat, just a second after the bell had rung. "I'll learn from my mistakes," was all that she had said then.

There would be no mistake this time though, as she picked up a crucial takedown in the second half and kept that scoreline through to the end.

While they may be top of the heap currently, both Anshu and Sonam know their journey is only just starting out. But as coach Ajmer Singh says, they have the most crucial ingredient for success. "Sakshi is very strong and very experienced. But Sonam had the most desire. That's why she won."