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For the longest time, Satyawart Kadian would just stand still, head a little bowed—shy and transfixed—whenever the star of his school’s wrestling team passed him on the stairway and rushed up the steps. It was an attempt in vain to blend into the wall for the tall and burly boy. Then he gave up trying to disappear and would nod slightly, but the two never spoke.
“She was always ahead of my wrestling graph even in school,” Satyawart remembers their interludes on the staircase where Sakshi Malik would gallop up the steps two at a time. Once again Sakshi heads to an important Games to fight for a 62 kg medal, while Satyawart puts in one more day at training, trying to piece together his career in the heavyweight ranks. “We never spoke at the school, but I’d pass her on stairs and always felt respectful because she was a champ,” he says.
Satyawart, 24, has been edged out in trials by Mausam Khatri in the 97 kg division for the Asian Games, but not for the first time, Sakshi finds in the man she married, her strongest support to deal with the burden of expectations. “When she qualified for Rio and I didn’t, initially I used to just change the topic when speaking to her but I could see how much it meant to her, and how it could change women’s wrestling in Haryana,” he recalls.
As it turned out, Satyawart was probably the only Indian who whiffed a medal on the eve of her bouts. “I just knew she could. She only needed to forget the pressure,” he recalls.
It had been Satyawart, in fact, who had told Sakshi on the eve of India’s first medal in Rio that she ought to be fearless. “He had missed out on qualification by one second and he really wanted to go to the Olympics. I had qualified at the last minute, and it was tough for him to deal with his disappointment and also keep encouraging me,” Sakshi recalls. “But he gave me sensible advice: the day before my rounds, he told me the biggest Indian stars have lost out on medals here. But there is zero pressure on you, so go wrestle freely.”
Ahead of the Asiad, Satyawart has helped her deal with the opposite. Now there’s a deluge of pressure on Sakshi – so from pointing out her defensive lapses on the mat to lending the patient ear through her harangues of hunger, when she was irritable while trying to make weight, Satyawart has tweaked his supporting act.
“I was very depressed after the Commonwealth Games where I could win only bronze. One lapse of concentration and I missed out at Gold Coast. I spent two months thinking I won’t be called Commonwealth Games champion. Satyawart helped me bounce back and focus,” she says.
There was a time in life when Sakshi Malik’s obsession with wrestling worked like blinders on a horse. “I never wanted to get married because I was so obsessed with my game that anything beyond training and competing felt like a burden, a mountain,” she says. “But I’m happy I married Satyawart and how my in-laws understand my wrestling. I feel free,” she says.
The Kadians are a wrestling family – with Satyawart still coming to terms with the challenge of emulating his father Satyawan, an Olympian from 1988 and an Arjuna Awardee. Growing up in an akhada where his father reigned brought with it a burden of expectations, which the young wrestler often struggled with.
“I was very weak as a child. But my father had this junoon that his son will outdo him in wrestling,” he says. That pressure combined with a strict upbringing. “90s ke father aur ab ke fathers mein zameen aasmaan ka fark hai,” he says, explaining how he was petrified when his father would walk into the house. “I started wrestling at 3-4 years. Bachpan mein bade bachche mujhe patak patak kar utha ke maarte the. As a wrestler you can’t complain about unfairness of size. My mother understood me,” he explains.
While juniors’ results were quite encouraging with a bronze from Junior Worlds, Satyawart has taken time to find his footing because of the dearth of good sparring partners in the heavier category. “That power and stamina at the international level – it takes time,” he says.
What he did master was the basic stance—honed by his father. “My foot grip was something we worked on for hours – it’s technically strong, so the stance might be called good,” he says.
So while the two didn’t know each other in school, Sakshi had been impressed with the guy from school with wrestling’s regal bearing – the lithe-limbed hunching crouch. “The first fight I saw him compete in, I thought he had a beautiful stance – it was very attractive,” she says. The Olympic bronze medal may be hers, but she takes it in her stride when Satyawart often ribs her on her own stance.
“When you like someone, you start listening to them. And I accept he’s right when he says my stance is basically just standing like an iceberg,” she laughs. He’s pushed her to go beyond the double-leg attack she’s known for— the move that fetched her the fall in the dying moments of her bout at Rio. “He keeps telling me learn more variations or everyone will read me,” she says— a criticism that urged her to go beyond her technical comfort zones.
The pair decided to get married because the post-medal spotlight put pressure on them—they’d started going out after the Glasgow CWG in 2014. “When we stood together, we’d be taunted as if we’d committed a crime. It was an indirect way of saying we were not focussed on our careers,” she remembers.
The marriage brought her two families that were emotionally invested in her career. “They told me you only focus on wrestling and eating right. My father-in-law gives me a lot of advice on the game,” she says.
Still, wrestling’s traditional Indian rules mean separate camps for men and women and long periods of staying away. “Training for wrestling takes a lot out of you. You feel physically weak when you are making weight. There’s a lot of loneliness to deal with for everyone in camps. But Satyawart tells me: ‘main tere saath permanent hoo life mein. Lekin wrestling is only next 4-5 years.’ So I need to do it properly. I train hard because I know what I’m missing out on for it. I’m getting that old obsession back – yeh sport meri tapasyaa hai, and that involves sacrifice—in my case staying apart for days,” she explains.
Satyawart tries to keep pace with her mind. “I understand her rest and practice schedules and the pressure she’s under and I know that making weight means she will be annoyed. But she’s more sensible than me and rarely gets angry. On the flip side, she’s a little too sensitive and doesn’t really demand her rights and I am shocked when she stays polite in very unfair situations. But I’ve told her wrestling needs to be her only focus for the next few years. So when she calls from the camp, I just tell her that wrestling is her goal, nothing else,” he says.
Mustafa Ghouse of JSW, who supports them both, recalls how the Olympics has been a tough test for both. “Obviously missing the Games had been a big deal for Satyawart. He was basically forced to sit back in India and watch on TV. But he was extremely proud of her when she won, and her biggest support after she returned,” he says.
“Ladkon ka late achievement aata hai,” Sakshi explains of the tough road ahead for Satyawart. A youth Olympic medallist, he briefly hit the headlines when he won a title in Jammu, having fought there because international grapplers had fetched up, and he got himself some match-time. “But mud dangals are slow, on the mat it’s all over in six minutes—the moves are faster,” Satyawart adds.
“He’s extremely talented, hardworking and knowledgeable about the nuances. He’s started to mature, but though he beat Mausam in a big win at Turkey, he has to establish himself as India’s No 1,” Ghouse says eyeing 2020.
Much before wrestling gave Sakshi the Olympic medallist tag, it did something else. “My early childhood I grew up in a village with my paternal grandparents, before coming to Rohtak. At school there, I was a monster – I would back answer, break others’ pencils, pull their hair. Every bratty Haryanvi quality I had. But wrestling calmed me down. It quietened me,” she says.
It was around the same time that she was taming her own wild delinquent behaviour at the altar of the mat, moving from a village to the city, that she would notice Satyawart. This was after his stance had made her skip her wrestling heartbeat.
“Most wrestlers I’d grown up around had been brats. But when I went to DAV school, Satyawart was very different – good schooling, respectful, responsible, sensible and well-mannered,” she says. He’s remained pretty much the same – soothing Sakshi’s nerves whenever she feels jumpy and unlike the unfazed athlete she usually is.
The one time in recent times she felt ruffled was when she posted a picture of her and Satyawart at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. “It was two days after the championship, but it created a ruckus. We go for so many competitions but we rarely see anything. The pressure is so much we won’t even enjoy,” she says.
Her mind does all the travelling for now. “There’s this particular view in Canada I want to see. I like the quiet of Europe–so someday. I was very excited to stand in a village where one foot was in Germany, the other in France. It was along the road on the border. But right now I’d die to go to China and Japan though they never let others train with them,” she says, returning to wrestling and her probable opponents at the Asiad.
Should Sakshi manage the unprecedented – nick a win off a Japanese–it will be yet another time when she canters over the proverbial steps, two at a time. Satyawart promises to watch her bound away on the stairway, and applaud loudly this time.
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