Rohtak (Haryana): House No. 45 in Sector-4 is the most prominent address here. From roadside vendors to traffic constables, everyone in the bustling town knows the residence of wrestler Sakshi Malik, the bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics. A huge hoarding of Sakshi holding the national flag adorns the balcony and the first thing that catches the eye in the compact living room is the collage of photo frames that illustrates the girl’s journey from Rohtak to Rio.
For Sakshi’s parents, Sukhbir and Sudesh, unannounced visitors are just part of their daily routine ever since their daughter created history in the Brazilian city by becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to win a medal. “We are not just yet tired of welcoming journalists who come from various parts of the country,” said Sukhbir, a driver with Delhi Transport Corporation.
The akhara (training place of martial arts) in the Chotu Ram Stadium, the nerve centre of women’s wrestling in India, is a five-minute drive from Sakshi’s house.
As Sakshi heads out for the morning training session, people on the street are quick to recognise her and she acknowledges them by rolling down the window.
“Some of them know me since I was a kid, but of late people recognise me so much that whenever I go out in my car or stop somewhere, they want to come closer, talk to me and take selfies. Now I think I have to learn to move around quietly,” said Sakshi.
The 24-year-old said her life has changed tremendously in the last two months. “People around the country are showering me with a lot of love and respect. I’m getting to meet big celebrities. I have been bestowed with the Khel Ratna and it is a matter of great pride,” she said.
When Sakshi’s mother Sukhbir first took her to the akhara she faced a lot of opposition for “sending a girl into a male bastion.”
Coming from a state which is infamous for skewed sex ratio in favour of men, Sakshi’s achievement is now a beacon of hope for women in Haryana.
And the state government has recently announced Sakshi as the brand ambassador for its ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Save daughters, teach daughter) campaign.
“People’s mindsets are changing. Earlier very few girls played sports but now more are coming forward. The government should keep highlighting the fact that it was two girls (P.V. Sindhu and Sakshi) who brought laurels to the country from Rio. If the government organises more campaigns, it will make a huge difference, especially in a state like ours,” she added.
What makes Haryana a powerhouse in wrestling? “Doodh ka kana (We eat a lot of milk products),” she laughed. “Our fathers and grandfathers have wrestled from time immemorial. We imbibe that as children.
“Wrestling commands a lot of respect here. So a lot of youngsters from Haryana take up the sport. But girls were not allowed until the millennium. If not for my mother’s support, I wouldn’t have come this far. She has made a lot of sacrifices for me,” she said.
Despite the sport’s popularity here, the famous akhara is in a dilapidated state.
Rusty weight training equipment and shabby change rooms are not a pleasing sight. But Sakshi wants to look at the brighter side. “Early on, we would train here without ceiling fans. It used to be really hot. Things have changed now; we have a water purifier and cooler. The Haryana government has also promised to spruce up the hall in addition to installing air-conditioners,”she said.
Sakshi identifies ‘real coaches’
The disappointment was palpable on Sakshi's face when she spoke about the controversy of multiple coaches claiming for the prize money announced by the Haryana government. Four coaches — Ishwar Singh Dahiya, Mandeep Singh, Kuldeep Malik and Rajbir Singh — are in the fray to get Rs 10 lakh.
“Not just for me, it's also disappointing for those who coached me,” said Sakshi.
“From 2004 to 2009, I was trained by Ishwar. From 2010 till date, it’s been coach Mandeep. The official coaches who travelled with me to Rio were Mandeep and Kuldeep. I don’t know about the fourth one,” said Sakshi.
Rajbir, the district sports officer of Rohtak, claimed that the state government had appointed him to train her between 2011 and 2015.
Sakshi said she he has already given an affidavit to the government mentioning the names of the coaches. “For Kuldeep sir, the announcement was made in Rio itself; and the announcement for the other two was done here. I hope the issue ends with this,” said Sakshi....