Vinesh Phogat: From disappointment in Rio to Tokyo's top seed
- Yanan is leading 2-1 in the first period when she sweeps low and grabs Phogat's ankle with both hands and slams into her in an effort to bring her down.
To understand what Vinesh Phogat has gone through in the last five years, you have to start by standing inside the wrestling hall at the 2016 Rio Games, watching her take on China's Sun Yanan--the 2013 world champion--in the quarterfinals.
Yanan is leading 2-1 in the first period when she sweeps low and grabs Phogat's ankle with both hands and slams into her in an effort to bring her down.
Phogat resists, bending over Yanan, jamming her free leg into the mat. Yanan increases the pressure and suddenly, Phogat collapses with a scream.
Now she is writhing in pain, clutching her heavily taped knee. She has torn her anterior cruciate ligament--ACL--the tissue that connects the knee to the shin bone. As she is stretchered off the mat, it's not just that Phogat's Olympic campaign is over. Her career may be too.
If PV Sindhu, Sakshi Malik and Deepa Karmakar’s were the bright, enduring images for India from Rio, Phogat’s was a reminder of how sports can be brutal and unforgiving.
It was supposed to be Phogat’s Olympics. She was in fine form, having won medals at the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games, and the Asian Championships before she reached Rio.
For days, Phogat said, she would just sit and cry. The pain of being forced to withdraw from the most important event of her career was more than the pain of injury. Her close friend Sakshi Malik went on to win a historic bronze for India the same day.
“I couldn’t see her bout as I had finished mine just before that. But she (Vinesh) was crying when she met me in the room. I felt very bad. Everyone was disappointed,” said Malik. “I still remember that her pain vanished when I told her about my medal. She celebrated my bronze medal win. Even during the return flight home from Rio, we kept talking about what happened at the Games.”
Five years from that day, Phogat’s life has come full circle. She will be at another Olympics, this time not just as a medal contender but as the world's No.1 wrestler--and the Tokyo top seed--in the 53kg category.
The comeback she scripted saw her being nominated alongside Tiger Woods at the Laureus World Sports Award in 2018 – the year she won both Commonwealth Games and Asian Games titles on her first season since the injury. “The journey to Tokyo has been long, bittersweet and difficult at times,” Phogat tweeted three days back. "Casting my mind back five years, I wasn't even sure whether I would be able to get on to the mat again. The injury in Rio was easily one of the lowest moments in my career, and even had me questioning whether I would ever be able to wrestle again."
Phogat said that she had always believed that if she needed surgery, it would mean the end of her career. But when it finally happened, she found a hidden strength in her.
“I realised that I cannot fight destiny, so why complain. Everyone has their own journeys and I have mine," she said. "I take everything positively now. Maybe I had to go through that phase so that I could emerge mentally stronger. I never thought I could do all this, that I have so much in me to go through such a tough phase and come out stronger.”
Accessing that inner strength has also made her more dominating on the mat. One of the things she had to do was get stronger--a lot stronger. In 2018, after her Asian Games gold in 50kg (a weight class that does not feature in the Olympics), she moved to 53kg with an eye on Tokyo. The first thing her Hungarian coach Woller Akos did was to put her on a challenging strength training regimen. High-altitude sessions in Bulgaria followed, to add endurance to the strength. Finally, stronger, faster and more durable, the focus shifted to technique and tactics.
“My game is more tactical now. I study every opponent closely,” Phogat said. “Earlier, I used to be in a hurry to attack. I used to wrestle from the front. That has changed. I am always in motion now and use my hands more. I have cleaner, smoother moves. I don’t get stuck in a move.”
At the world championships in 2019, she made her presence felt in her new category--first by taking down Rio Olympics silver medallist Sofia Mattsson and then American Sarah Hilderbrandt, who was the world No 1 at that time.
Perhaps the last big challenge left for Phogat is defeating the 2019 world championship silver medallist, Japan's Mayu Mukadia, who beat Phogat both at the World and the Asian Champioship in 2019. Like Yanan in Rio, Mukadia is extremely fast and likes to attack Phogat on her ankles.
In Tokyo, Phogat may find herself in the same position she did in Rio, faced with the challenge of engineering a different outcome this time.