Here is the lowdown on three wrestlers who will lead India’s challenge in men’s wrestling at Tokyo Olympics.
Seema Bisla (50kg)
Form guide: 2021: Gold in World Olympic qualifier in Bulgaria; Bronze in Asian championships in Kazakhstan; Fourth place in Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan.
Main rivals: Three-time Olympic medallist and multiple Worlds medallist Maria Stadnik (Aze), double Worlds medallist Ana Vuc (Rom), Worlds bronze winner Valentina Islamova (Kaz), Individual World Cup gold winner Ekaterina Poleshchuk (Rus), Worlds bronze medallist Oksana Livach (Ukr), World and Olympic medallist Sun Yanan (Chn), former Worlds silver medallist Sarah Hildebrandt (USA), and former Worlds bronze medallist Evin Demirhan (Tun).
Coming from a humble background, the girl from Gudan village in Rohtak district learnt wrestling at her school without realising the vast scope of the sport. As her father Azad Singh, a small-time farmer, could barely manage to feed his family, including four daughters and a son, wrestling was a means for Seema Bisla to land a job.
Without proper guidance, Seema competed in different weights categories, from 50kg to 67kg, during her formative years. In her own words, “Nobody wanted to teach me.” She got medals at junior and elite level events without making an impact. A trial for a Railways job in 2016 kick-started her career in the real sense of the term. Railways’ coach Paramjeet Singh saw potential in her and Seema not only got a job but also an able guru.
Indian wrestler Seema Bisla with her coach Paramjeet Yadav at her academy in Farrukh Nagar. – PTI
Seema shifted from her sister’s place in Rohtak to Gurgaon to train at the Paramjeet Sports Academy. Paramjeet not only trained Seema but also advised her to improve her diet to gain strength. It helped and within a few months she claimed her maiden National title in Indore in 2017.
In 2019, with the World championships around the corner, Paramjeet asked Seema to settle in 50kg as star wrestler Vinesh Phogat had switched to 53kg. Seema lost in the repechage round in the World championships, which was an Olympic qualifying event.
Seema finally made the cut for the Olympics in the World qualifier in Sofia, Bulgaria, in May 2021. The 29-year-old, who is employed with the Haryana Sports Department as a wrestling coach, wants to make her Olympic appearance count.
Vinesh Phogat (53kg)
Form guide: 2021: Gold in Ukranian wrestlers and coaches memorial tournament, Ukraine; Gold in Matteo Pellicone Ranking Series, Italy; Gold in Asian championships, Kazakhstan and Gold in Poland Open, Poland.
Main rivals: two-time World champion Mayu Mukaida (Jpn), twice Worlds medallist Pang Qianyu (Chn), Individual World Cup gold medallist Maria Prevolaraki (Gre), Worlds bronze medallist Roksana Zasina (Pol), former Worlds bronze medallist Lianna Montero (Cub), World champion in 55kg Jacarra Winchester (USA), World and Olympic medallist Sofia Mattsson (Swe), two-time World champion Vanesa Kaladzinshaya (Blr), Worlds bronze medallist Bat-Ochiryn Bolortuyaa (Mgl), two-time Asian champion Tatyana Akhmetova-Amanzhol (Kaz) and European champion Olga Khoroshavtseva (Rus).
Vinesh Phogat is the top seed in the 53kg category for Tokyo Olympics. – PTI
Vinesh Phogat, a feisty fighter, charted her own course breaking away from the glory associated with her surname primarily earned by her famous cousin sisters, Geeta and Babita.
Vinesh showed her promise early at the junior level and made rapid progress to claim her maiden National title in 2012. She carried on her success story to win medals at the Asian championships in 2013.
Her gold medal in the Commonwealth Games and bronze in the Asian Games in 2014 made her a strong candidate for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The talented wrestler had to bid adieu to Rio in pain and tears as she twisted her knee during a fight. However, the strong-willed Vinesh fought back to assert her class and again won medals in elite events.
Vinesh raised her profile by becoming the first woman wrestler to win gold medals in the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games. So far shuffling between 48kg and 53kg, Vinesh finally made up her mind to settle in 53kg. She claimed her maiden World championships medal, a bronze, in Nur-Sultan and an Olympic quota place in 2019.
Her consistent performance, including the Asian crown in 2021, in various elite events has made the 26-year-old, who is also a Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and Arjuna Award winner, one of the brightest medal prospects for the country in the Tokyo Olympics.
Anshu Malik (57kg)
Form guide: 2021: Gold in Asian championships, Kazakhstan; Silver in Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan; Gold in National championships, Agra; 2020: Silver in Individual World Cup, Bulgaria.
Main rivals: World and Olympic champion Risako Kawai (Jpn), former World champion Rong Ningning (Chn), twice Worlds bronze medallist Iryna Kurachkina (Blr), three-time Worlds medallist and twice CWG champion Odunayo Adekuoroye (Ngr), Individual World Cup winner Anastasia Nichita (Mda), Olympic champion in 53kg and two-time World champion Helen Maroulis (USA), former Worlds bronze medallist Evelina Nikolova (Bul), and Individual World Cup bronze medallist Veronika Chumikova (Rus).
Wrestling is in the blood of 19-year-old Anshu Malik, who along with her friend Sonam Malik, has amazed the lovers of the sport with her performances at the highest level.
Anshu Malik (left) and Vinesh Phogat – SPECIAL ARRANGMENT
Anshu’s father Dharamvir, a former wrestler from Nidani village in Jind district of Haryana, had decided that his intelligent daughter would focus on studies, while his son would carry forward the family’s wrestling tradition.
However, Anshu – inspired by his father, uncle Pawan and their guru Dronacharya award winner Om Prakash Dahiya – requested her grandmother to impress upon Dharamvir to allow her to wrestle.
Apart from gold medals in domestic competitions, Anshu’s consistent medal winning performances at cadet and junior level in Asian and World championships from 2017 to 2019 showcased her talent.
Her father requested the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) to give a chance to Anshu, a former World cadet and junior champion, at the elite level and WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh allowed the teenager to compete with the best.
A gold medal in 59kg in 2019 National championships, a bronze medal at the Asian championships and an Individual World Cup silver in 2020 and another gold in the National championships this year were proof of Anshu’s calibre. She beat established wrestlers, including Sarita Mor, Ponki and Lalita, in the trials to be selected for the Asian Olympic qualifier and secured a quota place in 57kg in Almaty this year.
Anshu and her room-mate Sonam and their fathers, Dharamvir and Rajender who are also room-mates in Lucknow while providing support to their daughters at the National camp, make a unique example of bonding and will be eager to experience success together in Tokyo.
Dharamvir, Anshu, WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, Sonam and Rajender. – SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
Sonam Malik (62kg)
Form guide: 2021: Silver in Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan; Gold in National championships, Agra; 2020: Quarterfinalist in Individual World Cup, Serbia.
Main rivals: World and Asian Games champion Aisuluu Tynybekova (Kgz), six-time Worlds medallist Taybe Yusein (Bul), twice Worlds medallists Henna Johansson (Swe) and Yukako Kawai (Jpn), former World champion Marianna Sastin (Hun), Worlds silver medallist Iryna Koliadenko (Ukr), double Worlds bronze medallist Anastasija Grigorjeva (Lat), and Worlds silver medallist in 59kg Lyubov Ovcharova (Rus).
Another 19-year-old sensation, Sonam Malik has made a name for herself early in her career by beating Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sakshi Malik multiple times and securing an Olympic quota place in 62kg.
Sonam, from Madina village in Gohana block of Sonepat district, benefited when her father’s friend Ajmer Malik retired from Army to open the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Sports Academy in their locality in 2012.
According to Ajmer, initially Sonam did not like to come to the academy but was an obedient student. Once she got a hang of the sport, Sonam showed improvement and got a gold and a bronze in the World cadet championships in 2017 and 2018, respectively.
Sonam Malik (centre) – UNITED WORLD WRESTLING
However, Sonam did not have the confidence to beat Sakshi when her coach requested the Wrestling Federation of India to promote the young wrestler to the highest level.
Armed with a nothing-to-lose attitude, Sonam beat Sakshi at the National championships in Agra in 2021 and again in the trials for the Olympic qualifier.
Like her friend, Sonam also won a silver medal and secured a berth in the Olympics at the Asian Olympic qualifier in Kazakhstan this year.
Time will tell whether she recovers from her knee injury and gets fit in time to give her best in Tokyo.