With first CWG gold, Sakshi Malik rediscovers herself on the mat

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Sakshi Malik walked into the arena to Nirvana's hit Smells like teen spirit. She walked off the mat after an emphatic reminder that she's not lost one ounce of the spirit that had once lifted her to Olympic glory. She may not be the young sensation she once was, but this bout showed that the grizzled veteran of today is absolute champion material.

The final was a tense affair. She started the bout slowly, losing the first grapple. Canada's Ana Godinez Gonzalez had come out charging, intending to take the wind gained out of Sakshi's smooth run earlier in the day. Testing Sakshi's defence early, she went low and hard. A quick takedown and Sakshi trailed 0-2. Gonzalez pressed home the advantage, keeping her opponent on the back foot, forcing the bout to go at the tone and pace she desired. With about half a minute (of three) left in the first round (of two), she went for another knockdown, arrowing into Sakshi's knees. 0-4 heading into the thirty second break.

As her coaches tried to help her cool down, there was concern on Sakshi's face, her shoulders slumped a touch. The sight quietened a very vocal, Indian-heavy crowd at the Coventry Arena.

Sakshi knew she had to reverse momentum early on in the second round and she went on the offensive. She's known for her patience and ability to outlast anyone but this was not the time for that. Out came a near-immediate attack on Gonzalez' legs. A takedown to make it 2-4, chained into another to make it 4-4. Then the piece de resistance: With the two still grappling on the floor, Sakshi twisted this way and that, before leaning forward and pinning Gonzalez's shoulders to the floor. A fall. Match over. Sakshi Malik, Commonwealth Games gold medalist.

The DJ obligingly laid out a cracking Bhangra beat for Sakshi to take a quick victory lap. Smile as wide as it has ever been. The arena shook with cheers and howls of appreciation.

She had won the earlier rounds with ludicrous ease, but this one had forced her to look deep within herself. She had had a 10-0 win in the quarters, victory coming by another fall, that most cinematic of finishing moves. 10-0 in the semis, winning by technical superiority (her opponent not scoring a point before she hit ten). She'd not spent more than five minutes combined on both bouts.

Get in, smash opponent about, go home. Straightforward as it comes.

Her route to Birmingham, though, had been anything but straightforward.

Now, you've heard of Sakshi Malik (though she now goes by the name of Sakshee Malikkh). A bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics. India's first ever female wrestling medallist. One of the two bright spots from a dark trip for Indian sport on the biggest stage of them all. In 2016, there weren't many names bigger than Mailk in Indian sport.

'To those who told me I am a girl and could not wrestle," she had said post-Rio, "I want to say please show some trust in girls. They can do everything."

At the turn of that year, the wrestling world lay at her feet: further glory, triumphs, medals lay ahead. But suddenly there was nothing. Her name slipped from the headlines as form deserted her. There were medals, including bronze at the 2018 CWG, but nothing to match the high of Rio. For an Indian Olympic medalist, a CWG bronze just wasn't good enough. Especially since she had already won silver in 2014.

Soon, younger fighters came up to replace her. Sonam Malik, 14 when Sakshi was creating history in Rio, became numero uno in the 62kg, dominating Sakshi on multiple occasions: including trials for the Tokyo Olympics.

As her peers wrestled away in Japan, Sakshi came on TV shows as an analyst. Smiling, articulate and with a great eye for detail, she made a good analyst, but it must have eaten her up inside.

Her wrestling was suffering, she was trying different things, including being all out aggressive instead of her natural waiting game, her body language dropped and dropped and dropped. It wasn't a pretty sight.

Till 2022 happened.

At 29, she knew she had to make her comeback now or accept that it would never happen. She finally beat Sonam (nine years her junior) in her fifth attempt at the national trials to confirm her Birmingham berth. In June, she won her first international tournament in five years - at a ranking series event in Kazakhstan. Now, in August, she has the big one.

She had to dig deep, find the kind of resolve that many thought had deserted her, but Commonwealth gold is finally hers. More than the medal though, what will please her is the manner of victory - in the final and the bouts that preceded it. This was the Sakshi who never gave up, the Sakshi who had become the darling of the press six years ago, the Sakshi who had girls glued to TV screens the nation over, dreaming about what they could become. She may now be called Sakshee Malikkh, but this is very much the Sakshi Malik India fell in love with.