Returning to the circuit after a prolonged injury with a gold medal defines a remarkable comeback of an athlete – Haryana wrestler, Anshu Malik embodied this spirit when she bounced back from a lingering knee injury to seize the gold at the National Wrestling Championships 2023 on 3 February.
Anshu, the 22-year-old 2021 World Championship silver medalist triumphed with a commanding 8-3 score in the finals of the 59 kg category against the formidable four-time Asian medalist Sarita Mor at the Senior National Wrestling Championships in Jaipur.
This match wasn't just about Anshu's comeback; it held deeper significance. For, the last time when Anshu squared off against Sarita at the 2023 Asian Games trials, Mor got the better of Anshu Malik in the opening round of the 57kg category trials, handing her a 4-6 defeat in Delhi, while she battled with a grade-II ligament tear in her knee.
“The last time I faced Sarita di, I was injured and that kept me from giving my full effort. When you don't give your best, you feel disappointed with yourself. It's hard to accept. But now that I've started this year well, I hope to finish it the same way,” Anshu told The Quint.
Choosing to elect out of surgery for her troubled knee, Anshu took a unique path to recovery. With the help of the Olympic Gold Quest, she went to Chennai to address the persistent issue through rehabilitation. Her goal was clear – to be in prime condition for competition, perfectly timed for the Olympic year.
“I have been down with injury for a long time. It feels good to make a comeback but when you are returning from an injury, you become low on confidence. Winning gold in the nationals feels amazing. It's a big boost for my confidence as I prepare for the Olympic trials,” she says.
Significantly, Anshu's native category is 57kg, but she made a transition to the 59kg category, a non-Olympic weight class, owing to weight gain during her hiatus from the wrestling mat.
"I sustained an injury, leading to significant weight gain. My doctors and physiotherapists suggested moving up a weight category from 57 kg to 59 kg to reduce the risk of further injury. They stressed the urgency of this crucial year, emphasising limited time for rehabilitation. So I made the decision to compete in the 59 kg category,” she explains.
Despite this transition, Anshu now aims to participate in the Olympic trials within the 57kg category.
Anshu is making a strong return from her injuries, though she's not fully recovered yet – To boost her chances for the Paris Olympics, the 22-year-old went to Japan to train with Akari Fujinami, a two-time world champion at Yokohama’s Nippon Sports Science University, the nursery for famed Japanese women wrestlers.
“I am fit now. I think I stand at 80% in terms of my performance. I'm currently training in Japan and my focus is to prepare for Paris (Olympics). I hope everything goes well,” she reveals.
Even though Fujinami wrestles in the 53 kg category, Anshu believes training with the Japanese prodigy, who is undefeated in 111 matches both domestically and internationally since 2017, clinching the World title and Asiad, holds considerable importance for her.
“Japanese wrestlers are the best in the world and if you train with top wrestlers, you will improve. Training here, I get to work on fixing my technical mistakes and overcoming my weaknesses. I'm thoroughly enjoying my sessions with Akari and learning something new every day. I'm really enjoying training here in Japan,” says Anshu.
Accompanied by her father and former wrestler, Dharamvir, Anshu highlights the crucial role he plays in her career. Reflecting on his support, she says, "My dad has been pivotal in my journey. I started this path with his backing, and he's been by my side ever since. I enjoy training with him, it's not like I fear him whilst wrestling."
Acknowledging his dual role as both father and coach, Anshu adds, "Sure, he scolds me, and sometimes I even get a bit roughed up, but these are secondary things. Training with him is where I truly find joy. If he's not with me, I feel I can't give my best."
Now, what's Anshu's road to the Summer Olympics? According to the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI), simply earning Olympic quotas won't guarantee Indian wrestlers a spot in the Paris Olympics. They must also win the selection trials held in India to secure their spots.
Modeled after the United States' selection process, the new policy introduces a "challenger" system. The quota winner will face off against the winner of the trials. In this "wrestle off," the quota winner needs to win once to secure their place, while the challenger must win twice in a row.
Courtesy of this new policy, Anshu now has two events that serve as qualifiers for the Paris Olympics, with the women's trials taking place in March at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala.
Despite facing injuries and setbacks, Anshu’s journey serves as an inspiration to many. Now at 80% in terms of performance, the wrestling world awaits her success on the way to the showpiece event in the French capital.