The challenges Vinesh Phogat needs to grapple in the push for Paris
- The road to a third Olympics will be tougher but this won’t be the first time the former world No 1 is attempting a comeback
Mariya Stadnik is 33, a mother of two, has four Olympic wrestling medals but has said she is aiming for her first gold in Paris 2024. His body battered, Yogeshwar Dutt was nearly 30 when he won bronze in the 2012 Olympics. Of the 24 women’s wrestling medallists at the Tokyo Olympics, eight were 30 or older.
If they can, why can’t Vinesh Phogat? She is 27 and Paris would be her third Olympics. The first, in Rio, ended with her leaving in a stretcher with a career-threatening anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. Laid down for nine months, she mounted a spirited comeback and went to Tokyo as the world No. 1 who had won the Asian Games and Commonwealth Games gold and a world championship bronze. Another heartbreak, this time in the quarter-final of the 53kg, followed. Soon after, there was a fallout with Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) leading to Phogat being suspended for indiscipline.
All that is behind her. Having recovered from an elbow injury and mental fatigue, Phogat has resumed training with her wrestler husband Somveer in Kharkhoda, Haryana. She is expected to start her season at the ranking series in Rome early next month and prepare for a slew of major competitions this year: Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the world championships.
Considering how they are bunched up — the Commonwealth Games’ fortnight begins on July 28 and the world championship and the Asian Games both start on September 10 — Phogat might not appear in all three. But this season will reveal a lot about how ready she is in mind and body for a push for Paris.
If she qualifies for Paris, Phogat will be at an age when it becomes a challenge for many wrestlers to keep it all together. Phogat will need to be in prime condition and plan her tournament schedule smartly.
On her return from Tokyo last year, Phogat spoke about how she was dealing with mental stress and dizziness, stemming from concussion in 2017, during her Olympics quarter-final against Vanesa Kaladzinskaya. Before that, Phogat’s team had felt the dizzy spells were caused by weight drop before competitions which was causing her blood pressure to dip. Phogat said she first felt dizzy during a bout in 2019 and that it kept coming back during tournaments.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics due to Covid-19 gave her support staff – solely responsible for devising her training plans — ample time to get that sorted. That didn’t happen.
Challenges at home
Hungarian coach Woller Akos had guided Phogat through a fabulous run from 2018. The gold in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games and the bronze at the world championships next year took her to the top of her weight category. During this period, she would have long training camps outside India, often in Hungary, where she would train with Priyanka, her sister and sparring partner. During those trips, she would also have a physiotherapist.
Phogat has spoken of the benefits of working with a foreign coach. She might still be looking for one but it may not be a personal coach. The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) wants to club together two to three top players with one coach.
“If there is a foreign coach, it will be for two to three top players,” said a senior WFI official. “We don’t want a situation where every wrestler demands their own personal coaches, devises their own programme and keeps moving around the world for training and competition. We don’t get to know what is happening to the wrestler.”
Phogat is also unlikely to be accorded star status by WFI anymore. And that could mean spending more time training in the country and needing to appear in the national selection trials.
Currently no Indian wrestler matches up to Phogat in her weight category. But given the widening talent pool in women’s wrestling in the country that could change.
Sakshi Malik knows all about it. If the 2016 Rio Olympics bronze medallist thought she would have an easy passage to Tokyo Olympics qualifiers, she had another think coming. A certain 17-year-old Sonam Malik came from nowhere in 2020 and upstaged her, not once but four times leading up to the Asian qualifiers in last year, eventually qualifying for Tokyo with a fantastic victory in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“Sakshi seemed to be in a state of denial after losing to Sonam the first time,” said Sonam’s coach Ajmer Malik. “It was only after Sonam beat her more than once that she realised she had a battle in hand. Sonam was talented and working hard but she was getting ready for the 2024 Olympics. We never thought she could go on and beat a Rio Olympics bronze medallist when she was yet to compete in her first year on the senior international circuit.”
So, Phogat will have to keep a watch at home and the world for there is bound to be new challengers emerging. The World Championships in October 2021 has already seen the rise of a Japanese sensation in the 53kg category, 17-year-old Japanese Akari Fujinami, whose terrific attacking style fetched her the title without conceding a single point.
Phogat has a mind of her own and has tactically evolved as a wrestler. She knows when to take risks. The road will be tougher this time but it also won’t be the first time she is making a comeback.