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Anshu sets eyes on Paris, with a little help from Japan

The selection trials for Olympics qualifiers in Patiala on March 11 expectedly ended up being all about Vinesh Phogat who competed in two weight categories (50kg and 53kg) to keep her Paris pursuit on track. That meant Anshu Malik’s dominant win over the seasoned Sarita Mor in the 57kg division flew under the radar.

Anshu Malik

Nevertheless, the win was Malik’s second success in as many months, coming on the back of her winning the 59kg title at the senior national championships in Jaipur last month. Like in Patiala, Malik had got the better of Mor in Jaipur, beating the 28-year-old former world No.1 8-3.

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Thumping domestic wrestlers may not appear a big deal but for the fact that the 2021 Oslo World Championships silver medallist is mounting a comeback from a spate of injuries. She underwent surgery on her left elbow for a ligament tear post the 2022 Commonwealth Games and endured a Grade II ligament tear in her left knee last year. She has now trained her sights on Paris, and winning the selection trial is the first significant step in that direction.

“With Paris on the horizon, I am taking every bout as a must-win outing. There is no room for errors anymore,” Malik said. Her purpose and preparation were on display in Patiala where she turned a 2-2 deadlock in the final — with 25 seconds left — into a 6-3 win.

“It got a bit tight in the end and with the clock running out, I was a little nervous. But I was determined to win,” she added.

Malik has regularly prevailed over Mor in recent clashes, beating her at the Commonwealth Games trials in Lucknow two years back. Mor avenged that loss at the Asian Games trial last year in Delhi and Malik responded with wins in Jaipur and Patiala.

Playing down the brewing rivalry, Malik said, “Sarita is a very fine and accomplished wrestler. She is a World Championships medallist which is not a joke. Irrespective of the opponent, my goal is to dominate.” The four-point throw that felled Mor and left the packed hall in NIS stunned attested to that. The move began with Mor trying to push Malik out to eke out a one-point advantage in the dying seconds. Pushed to the brink, Malik used Mor’s momentum to her advantage, dragging her to the right and lifting her in a powerful twist before bringing her thudding to the mat.

“It just happened. The body reacted instinctively,” she would say but the genesis of that manoeuvre lay about 6000kms away, in the wrestling hall of Nippon Sports Science University in Yokohama, Japan. Sparring with the likes of Kaori Icho, Yui Sasaki, and Akari Fujinami in the invitation-only facility, the month-long stay exposed Malik to moves and mindsets she never knew existed.

“The first thing that struck me was their humility. They were so warm and giving, it was as if they genuinely wanted me to learn,” she said of her illustrious sparring partners. Icho, the 39-year-old legend, is the first female in any sport to win individual-event gold medals at four consecutive Olympics (2004-16). She also happens to be a 10-time world champion. Susaki is the four-time world champion (50kg) while the two-time defending world champion Fujinami (53kg) is unbeaten since 2017.

“I was a bit starry-eyed when I first entered the hall, but everyone went out of their way to make me feel comfortable. Whenever they tried a new technique, they would call me over,” said Malik. The wrestler and her father, Dharamvir, were also invited by Fujinami for dinner. “We tried Japanese food for the first time. We developed a taste for sushi and ramen. Initially, there were some issues with the language, but eventually, we found a way to communicate,” Malik said.

Wrestling-wise, the biggest plus was Malik picking up some nuanced techniques, one of which she applied against Mor. “No one works as hard on the mat as Indians, but sometimes, we tend to lack technically. I learned some new techniques and I practiced so hard that it became my muscle memory. Even the second and third rung of their wrestlers is world-class.”

“Most importantly, they do it with a smile. Even if a technique goes against them or they lose a bout, they smile, get up and fight again. It’s not as if there are huge investments in sports science or strength and conditioning. They don’t lift heavy in the gym either and rely on cardiovascular work to improve their stamina. But, they spend a lot of time on the mat. They train to become Olympic champions,” Malik observed.

The wrestler has earlier camped in Europe too, but Japan turned out to be quite an eye-opener. Known for their slippery speed and bustling counters, the Japanese dominate the lower weight divisions, their conveyor belt periodically throwing up one world-class wrestler after another.

“Frankly, I didn’t find anything extraordinary in Europe. They do the same drills, have the same mindset, similar techniques. I would even wonder, ‘What’s so unique about them?’ But in Japan, things were quite different.”

The biggest differentiators, Malik reckoned, were discipline and work rate. The wrestlers, irrespective of their pecking order, reported at the hall at 9 am for the session that would begin 30 minutes later. The three-hour session would be followed by two-and-a-half hour rest before they would assemble for the evening training.

“Their biggest wrestling stars stay in the most basic university hostels. There were barely any off days — we would relax only on the rare days when there were no evening sessions,” recounted Malik, who is planning a second trip to Japan.

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