Bitter rivals turned best buds, Sonam Malik and Anshu Malik book Tokyo tickets

From L-R: Sonam Malik, Raj Malik, Anshu Malik during wrestling trials in Lucknow in 2020 (File photo) Jonathan Selvaraj

On Saturday afternoon, Anshu Malik -- at 19 years eight months and five days old -- became the youngest Indian woman wrestler to qualify for the Olympics when she beat Uzbekistan's Shokhida Akhmetova in the semifinals of the women's 57kg division at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Almaty. About 15 minutes later, that record was broken when Sonam Malik, four days shy of turning 19, beat Kazakhstan's Ayaulym Kassymova in the semifinals of the women's 62kg division.

Anshu is unlikely to mind, though. The record is just yet another achievement she can claim to have shared with her close friend Sonam. A couple of months ago, when both of them won gold medals on debut in the national championships in Agra, she'd remarked on their joint successes. "We're really good friends. We have so much in common. We are the same age and we have won the same tournaments. We have won medals at the junior nationals together. We also won medals at the World Cadet Championships (gold in 2017 and bronze in 2018) together. When we go for a competition together we always do well," she said then.

It's clear the two are happy in each other's success. Indeed, among the first calls of congratulations Anshu's father Dharamvir received was from Sonam's father Raj Malik.

And while they are incredibly close now, their friendship couldn't have got off to a worse start. Back in 2016, the two were rivals, both competing in the 56kg division at the state school championships in Narwana. "We didn't even know each other back then. We had a close match and Sonam beat me. But my father felt I should have won. In the end, it led to a huge argument between him and Sonam's father. They nearly got into a fight," recalls Anshu. A few months later, it was Sonam who lost to Anshu at the state cadet championships and this time it was the former's father who claimed his child had been cheated.

Things only changed when the two made their way to the national cadet camp in Lucknow the same year. "That was the first time we both had left our family and become part of the national camp. Dono akele the. Because we were both new, we became roommates. And because we were sharing a room, we found we had a lot in common and we became friends," recalls Sonam.

They'd grown up relatively near each other - Anshu in the Nidani village of Jind district, just 39 kilometres from Sonam's home in Madina in neighbouring Sonepat. Both their parents had been wrestlers -- with Rajvir even representing India internationally.

Anshu, by virtue of winning the national title that year, represented India at the Asian and World Cadet championships - where she won a silver and a bronze. But despite her early success it became apparent that both she and Sonam were equally matched.

That's when their fathers, formerly at loggerheads, came to an agreement. "The first time we didn't meet on good terms. But slowly, as our daughters kept winning, we decided we had to work together. We decided it was for the best that they move to different weight divisions. We suggested the idea to them and they agreed. What's the point of competing in the same weight divisions if you are both friends and staying together?" says Raj Malik.

"Here's Sonam Malik, the Sushil Kumar of the women's Nationals." Anshu Malik

While it's Anshu who competes in the lighter 57kg division now, that wasn't the case four years back. Back then it was decided that Anshu, the bigger girl, would compete in the 60kg division while Sonam would wrestle in the 56kg. The move paid off almost instantly when the two went to the 2017 Asian Championships and won bronze, and later that year went to the World Cadet Championships and won a gold. "It was the better decision. Instead of fighting between themselves, they both got a gold medal," says Raj Malik.

Even later when Sonam got bigger after recovering from an arm injury in 2018, she decided not to move to Anshu's weight class and instead go one division higher to the 65kg category. Once she graduated to the senior division, Anshu too, opted to make a weight cut to compete in the 57kg category rather than compete with Sonam who was now fighting in the 62kg category.

The two fathers work together now as well. For the last three years, they have been travelling to the camp and to competitions in India to support their daughters. "We usually take a room outside the Lucknow campus. From there we bring food for our daughters. Sometimes when Rajvir (who works in the CISF) can't come because he has office work then I'll be the one who travels. When I'm not able to take leave from my office, Rajvir does it. Right now both Anshu and Sonam are like my daughters and it is the same for Rajvir also," says Raj Malik.

"They aren't sisters, but they are no less than that. When I spoke to Anshu on a video call after she qualified, Sonam was right next to her. They were both so happy for each other," says Rajvir Malik.

The bond between Anshu and Sonam has only grown stronger over time. Of the two, Anshu is the more extroverted. At the women's Nationals, where Sonam was interviewed after beating Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik to win gold, Anshu playfully chirped, "here's Sonam Malik, the Sushil Kumar of the women's Nationals."

"I can't imagine not being friends with Sonam," Anshu says. "We understand each other well. Even if sometimes I'll fight with her and then feel bad about it later, she tells me not to worry about it," says Anshu.

It's the same for Sonam. "It's nice to have a friend like Anshu in the camp because she is so positive. It's good to have someone like that because you push each other and motivate each other. Our thinking is the same. We have a very similar game too - it's mostly based on power. Even though we are in different weight divisions, we usually train together too," says Sonam.

"I train with Anshu, she is my partner and to qualify with her is great. One of the best feelings." Sonam told UWW.

Apart from the training, there's also the winning. After the Nationals, Anshu had remarked as much. "We have won the Nationals together, we have won the World Championships together. Now we are going to the Olympic qualifiers together," she'd said then. And even before the two had sealed their quota places, Anshu was already thinking of the next tournament they would be competing in. "We have travelled to so many countries and won together there. We say to each other hum dono ko Tokyo jana hai (we both have to go to Tokyo). That is one place the two of us have never competed in. I hope we do well there also."