‘Shifting weight was as tough as injury phase,’ Vinesh Phogat | Exclusive
Vinesh Phogat’s rise from a career-threatening knee injury suffered on the mat at the 2016 Rio Olympics is one of India’s brave sporting stories. The wrestler from Haryana has hit the heights again, renewing her Olympic dream by qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Games by winning bronze at the World Championships in September.
The 25-year-old also took a leap of faith after switching to 53kg from 50kg ahead of the World Championships. Phogat discusses various aspects of wrestling and her Olympic dream in an interview during her visit to HT House on Sunday.
How big was it to qualify for Tokyo?
I changed my weight this year, so it was looking difficult. I was facing many opponents whom I had not fought before. But I was mentally prepared. I know what kind of preparation you need for an Olympics. That experience helped a lot at the world championships.
Since I have qualified for Tokyo early, I can focus on preparation. My aim was to qualify, medal or no medal. I am happy I will compete in Tokyo; since Rio I have faced such situations that even to believe I will be competing in another Olympics is tough for me.
Did you feel any pressure of qualifying for the Olympics at the world championships?
No. But after Rio (injury) I have started believing in luck, destiny. I worked hard and wanted to see what is in store for me. I wanted to see whether God wants to see me in another Olympics.
So, you started believing in destiny?
Earlier, I used to believe that if you work hard you can achieve anything. Now I feel no matter how much effort you put in, everyone has their journey, their karma, which the Gods have for you. Even if don’t want, you have to go through it. I never thought I will have to go to a phase where I have to go through an operation (knee). The mindset was that if surgery happens it is the end of road (as a wrestler). During rehab I thought maybe I have to go through this phase because God wanted me to be strong. Now destiny again wants me to be at another Olympics and if God wants I will win a medal.
What are the challenges shifting to a new weight category?
It was a difficult period as I was coming out of injury. I always wondered whether it will be risky. Those 2-3 months during weight change, I came out of a very difficult phase. I was training and competition was approaching, but I was constantly fighting with my inner self, ‘whether I am doing the right thing.’ Whatever you do, belief is important. The people around me said they were convinced if I believed in something, I would be able to achieve it.
The coach was very sure if I do this change with a strong mind, results will come. The belief started coming only after I won back-to-back medals (Grand Prix of Spain and Yasar Dogu International in Istanbul). When I defeated Sofia Mattson (Rio Olympics bronze medallist) in Poland I was convinced 53kg is my weight. I’ve followed Sofia since I started wrestling. Beating her gave me lot of confidence. I decided, even if I lose at the world championships and didn’t qualify for the Olympics, I will not switch my weight category.
What changes, techniques and diet, did you have to make?
A lot. Earlier in 49 I used to eat less, recovery was a problem. It was the main reason for my getting injured because we train very hard the entire year and if diet was not adequate proper recovery doesn’t happen for the second session (training). This year I have remained injury free and not skipped a competition. Technically I am okay and strength-wise also I was okay, but I had to work on my speed. I won’t have to cut too much weight to compete (she weighs 56kg). Earlier, it was a challenge to lose weight before competition. Till the last moment I used to search for food (khane ko kya hai aas pas mein –what is near me to eat). When you switch to a heavier weight, you need to work on strength, which I have done.
Is there any wrestler who has inspired you?
Kaori Icho of Japan has been an inspiration for me. She is four-time Olympics medallist (2004-2016). She is still competing to qualify for Tokyo.
Japan’s Mayu Mukaida will be a strong opponent at Tokyo. You have lost to her twice.
Japan is a wrestling powerhouse. But they will be also under pressure to perform at home. I have assessed my bouts against Mukaida. To beat a Japanese, you have to be perfect in everything, be it diet plan or technique. We have to beat them technically. I have gone through the bouts and seen the areas where I made mistakes.
At the worlds, you fought a thrilling bout to beat world No.1 Sara Ann Hildebrandt (US)?
Actually, my coach (Hungarian Woller Akos) didn’t like that bout. I was giving my leg for her to attack. He said had there been someone strong, she would have taken advantage and finished me. I felt she was tiring and was confident I won’t let her score off my legs. The coach was giving instructions but I used a different strategy; I’ll keep tiring her and whenever there is an opportunity I will counter.
You’ve got good results with Akos. What is the difference between Indian and foreign coaches?
There is big change in the programme they design for you. Our coaches will put us through sessions of 3-4 hours of which only two hours will be training. We’re slow in everything, be it stretching, warm up. They (foreigners) say ‘warm up is not your game, wrestling is’. With my coach, I warm up for just 15 minutes. In India we take one hour before we go to the wrestling zone; by then your mind will be distracted and body will slow down.
Recovery is another area. We are usually called at 6am for training. An athlete will wake up an hour, hour-and-a-half to get ready. The body doesn’t get enough time to recover (after the previous evening’s session). A foreign coach will keep training at 10am so you can fully recover.
How has Pro Wrestling League helped?
I could beat the Chinese (Sun Yannan) at the Asian Games (2018-50kg gold) only because of Pro Wrestling. Generally, you don’t get to face top opponents many times. When she came to India, I lost to her twice in pro-wrestling could understand what is her level and where I was placed. In a contact sport, you have to work on your opponents; if you keep working only on yourself you won’t be successful. The Pro Wrestling ambience removes your fear of the big stage.
What is your daily schedule?
Every coach changes the plan in 15 days. We don’t know what’s going to come. If you keep doing the same things you will get bored. I am working on strength now because it is season. I am doing weight training, gym four times, then mat sessions. If we have gym in the morning, in the evening I will be on the mat because the stamina we have built we can use it in our training.
Many athletes now have dedicated foreign coaches?
More and more Indian athletes feel if you want performance at the top level, you have to give us better training and facilities.
Is this a big change in Indian sport?
If you look at Indian athletes, our performance stops after we reach a certain level. I feel we do not have that quality in coaching. The things you require for top-level training, be it quality mats, quality opponents, you don’t have that in India. There is no harm in taking help from foreign coaches. We want good Indian coaches for our grassroots to be strong. From childhood, I have never learnt technique. We have never been taught. We have just been taught about match. Japan is a powerhouse because they learn techniques from a young age. They learn so many variations that they can escape a tough situation. My coach has brought so many changes and I can feel the difference. It is difficult for me to learn at this age but I can only keep trying. I can’t go back in time and learn what I should have learnt then. It’s nothing that we lack in finance or anything, we just lack in planning. If you have the right coach, he can be the difference in those six minutes.
You are going to Bulgaria to train in freezing conditions?
I have so much belief in my coach. He wants to do some high-altitude training in the off-season which will help me improve heart rate and stamina. We’ve done tests to see how much I can improve my heart beat and stamina. We will come back to India and do the tests again.
What’s your schedule ahead of Tokyo?
In January, I will compete in two tournaments, one a ranking event. I will then compete in the Asian Championships. I like to train with our national squad. All of us have the same target. If we want to win in the Olympics, team work is important.
You lost your father early and started wrestling at a young age…
When I look back… I am an inspiration for myself. When I look back and see my mother working so hard, the condition at home, I never thought today I will be called a contender for an Olympics medal. Then injury happened and I had to start afresh. Sometimes I wonder how can I make such an impossible thing possible.
You went in a wheelchair to receive your Arjuna award in 2016.
I refused to go. I had just undergone the (knee) operation and didn’t want anyone to see me in that condition. But my doctor Dinshaw Pardiwala asked me to go. When I went there people wanted my pictures, interview. It made me feel insecure and I wanted to run away because emotionally you are scattered.
What did you do during the injury layoff?
Two, three months were very difficult. Mujhe sirf pata tha ki mujhe rona hai, sona hai and phir uth ke rona hai (I only knew I had to cry, sleep, wake up and cry and again). I did not want to speak to anyone, see my recovery. Only an athlete who has gone through that phase can understand. The JSW trainers, where I had gone for recovery, helped me a lot. I then started watching movies, got my ears pierced, did shopping alone, started reading books, started writing diaries and even started painting. I just didn’t realise how those 2-3 months passed.
Has the injury helped you get mentally stronger?
It has helped me become emotionally and mentally stronger. First I used to cry even for a small thing, if there is slight pain. Now I can train with pain because what I have gone through is the toughest phase you can see.
Women’s wrestling has grown in India…
When I was in cadet division and used to see our seniors losing to anyone. The aim was only to go outside. Medal to hamare aayega nahin (We were unlikely to win medals). Now you see the cadet, they not only think of winning medals at Olympics but they mean it. I have seen that change. In Haryana, there is craze for wrestling. In my village, if you have a girl, they say, koi nahin wrestling main laga denge (don’t worry, we will put her in wrestling).