New Delhi - In the 24 previous editions of the Asian Wrestling Championships prior to this year's tournament in New Delhi, India had won just a single gold medal -- through Navjot Kaur in the women's 65 kg event in 2018 -- in the women's competition. However, it seemed that the floodgates had opened up on Thursday, as an unprecedented three gold medals were won on the first day of the women's competition at the KD Jadhav Stadium.
It's not a stretch to say that not many -- spectators, players or coaches -- were expecting the result. None of the wrestlers were even given an Indian tricolor flag in order to to do a victory lap on the mat.
The gold rush was led in the morning by Divya Kakran, who pinned three opponents in succession before inflicting the same fate on Japan's Naruha Matsuyuki to claim the 68 kg title. In the evening session, it was the turn of Sarita Mor and Pinki in the 59 kg and 55 kg categories respectively.
There is a bit of a caveat in these performances. All the Indian wrestlers who won gold did so in a round-robin tournament because there were not enough wrestlers to have an elimination-style competition. Divya's category, for instance, had only 5 competitors, while Pinki and Sarita's categories had a field of 6 and 7 respectively [you need a minimum of eight competitors to have an elimination tournament]. The podium was then determined by the total points a wrestler had won based on the number of wins they had in the round-robin competition. Pinki, for example, won gold despite losing to Japan's in one of her matches.
The reason for the low turnout is the the absence of competitors from China, North Korea and Turkmenistan, who opted to skip the competition in the aftermath of the efforts to slow the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Japan too was fielding a weaker squad -- with the exception of 2019 Worlds silver medalist in the 53 kg category, Mayu Mukaida -- with most of their first-choice athletes focusing either on securing Olympic qualification at the Asian qualifiers next month or preparing for the big tournament itself.
That, however, doesn't take away from the Indian performances, especially that of Divya, who dominated all her opponents including the very capable Matsuyuki, the reigning junior world champion. She showed great heart in that final contest where she recovered from a near-pin herself. Divya had been leading 4-0 but had attempted a throw which was countered by Matsuyuki, who took Divya down for two points, rolled her for another two and then had the Indian's shoulder blades within inches of touching the mat. Divya eventually got out of the predicament, and then executed her signature move -- the kalajang or fireman's carry -- locking up her opponent's arms and flipping her over her back, to seal the win with a minute and 40 seconds left on the clock.
This was the second win for Divya over the Japanese wrestler - she had pinned her five years earlier at the the same venue in the final of the Asian Cadet Championships.
Following the win, Divya would admit that the absence of wrestlers from China, North Korea and Turkmenistan might have weakened the field. However, she added that there was an additional challenge even in competing in a five-wrestler competition. "There are only five wrestlers but that makes it harder because you have to wrestle each one of them. If there are more than eight wrestlers and you compete in brackets there is a chance that you won't have to face a strong wrestler but there's no chance of avoiding anyone in a round-robin competition. There's almost no rest between bouts. I'm just really happy I could win today," she said.