Sonam Malik, who became the youngest Indian wrestler to qualify for the Olympics when she reached the finals of the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Almaty on Saturday, will likely withdraw from the Asian Championships in the same city next week as a precautionary measure against a painful knee injury she suffered during the competition.
In her semifinal against Kazkahstan's Ayaulym Kassymova, Sonam was taken down, and landed awkwardly on her right knee. The Kazakh then rolled Malik twice, appearing to aggravate the injury. Although the Indian was down 0-6 inside the first thirty seconds and limped noticeably over the course of the bout, she turned things around, scoring nine unanswered points to win the match 9-6.
Having already qualified for the Olympics by making the final, Sonam conceded a bye to China's Jia Long to take the silver. National coach Kuldeep Malik said the injury was not as serious as he had feared ,but would still suggest Sonam be pulled out of the Asian Championships that are to be held next week.
"I'll talk to the federation tomorrow but I'll recommend that we withdraw from the Asian Championships. Our physiotherapists have had a look at the injury and it looks like she's twisted her knee. It's something we think will take about two weeks to heal completely. At this point it's best not to be risk injuring her knee any further. Our goal isn't the Asian Championships but to compete for a medal at the Olympic Games," Malik says.
Coach Malik admits he wasn't as upbeat about Sonam's injury during the match against Kassymova. That twisted knee he says was more worrying than the fact that Sonam was trailing 0-6 inside the first minute. "I wasn't worried about the 0-6 deficit. But what really worried me was the moment she got the injury because it looked serious at that time," he says.
Once it became apparent that Sonam could still wrestle though, his fears subsided. "Once I realised she was able to put weight on her leg and could wrestle in the match, I was confident she would win. She's got a lot of stamina and she was able to tire out her opponent," he says.
Sonam's injury worries weren't the only obstacle the Indian women's team had to face at the Asian qualifiers. Owing to travel restrictions and limited flights to the Kazakh capital, the Indian women's team and coaches only left from Delhi on the morning of the April 9, one day before their competition. Since there are no longer any direct flights from Delhi to Almaty, the team landed in Tashkent, Uzbekistan where they had a nine-hour layover before catching a connecting flight to Almaty. They were only able to check into their team hotel in the Kazakh capital, three hours before their scheduled weigh-in.
This meant that in addition to the lack of sleep ahead of a major Olympic qualifying tournament, the wrestlers also barely had time to cut weight ahead of the weigh-in. "No wrestler walks around at the weight they show at the weigh-in. Normally they are about one or two kilos heavier a day before their event, which they lose before their weigh-in by exercising," says Jagdish Malik, coach of Sonam Malik.
Normally this weight cut is done at the hotel room or at the competition arena. However, since they were stuck at the Tashkent Airport, the team resorted to cutting their weight there itself. "They wore extra layers of clothes. They did running on the spot and shadow wrestled with each other," says Rajvir Malik, father of Anshu Malik, who also qualified for the Olympics in Almaty.
Though not ideal, Rajvir said the players managed as best they could. "A wrestler's life is never easy. You always have some issue you have to deal with. But they are used to being uncomfortable," he says. "When she finally reached Almaty, Anshu called me and said she was a little tired. I told her to find a way to deal with the lack of sleep for one day. It would have been very hard if she had to do this for many days. But I said you only have to manage with this situation for one day. After that you can rest. Now that she has qualified for the Olympics, she feels that also," says Rajvir.