Vinesh wins a mega battle, secures quota spot for Paris Olympics - Hindustan Times

Vinesh wins a mega battle, secures quota spot for Paris Olympics

By, New Delhi
Apr 20, 2024 10:51 PM IST

The face of the wrestlers’ protest sealed the quota place in 50kg by reaching the final at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Nineteen months after she last appeared in an international competition, six years after she last competed in the 50kg class at international level, a little over a year after she emerged as a prominent face of the wrestlers' protest against the then Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president, and a little over a month after she appeared in two weight classes in the domestic trials to give herself the best shot at the Paris Olympics, Vinesh Phogat stormed into her third successive Olympics on Saturday.

It is India's second quota place for the Paris Games as Antim Panghal had earned a quota in the 53kg category
It is India's second quota place for the Paris Games as Antim Panghal had earned a quota in the 53kg category

The 29-year-old beat Kazakhstan's 20-year-old Laura Ganikyzy by technical superiority in the semi-finals at the Asian Olympic Qualifiers in Bishkek on Saturday, securing a quota spot for Paris by reaching the final.

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In a throwback to her old, domineering days of free-spirited attacking style, Phogat didn't concede a point across her three bouts. She began the day with a 10-0 romp inside 100 seconds over 2023 Asian Championships bronze medallist from Korea, Miran Cheon. Next, she pinned Cambodia’s Samnang Dit to earn herself a quota bout against Ganikyzy.

The Kazakh wrestler managed to grab each of Phogat's legs in the first minute itself, but the Indian wriggled out of attempted takedowns with ease. Ganikyzy was all heart and enterprise but lacked the maturity to outdo a wrestler of Phogat's calibre. A third takedown attempt resulted in a speedy counter from Phogat as she got her first points on the board. As the break neared, Phogat doubled her lead with another counter, leaving her young rival with a lot to make up in the second period.

Phogat showed more attacking intent on resumption, going for Ganikyzy's legs and regularly breaching her defence. A two-point throw was followed by three two-point rolls in a row as Phogat raced to a 10-0 lead and clinched victory on technical superiority with a minute and 41 seconds left. As a disappointed Ganikyzy stayed in the corner, Phogat closed her eyes in what appeared a meditative routine, looked skywards in a thanking gesture and broke into a fleeting half-smile.

Although it would have felt like a huge win in more ways than one, her unfinished business with the Olympics has only just begun.

Saturday marks another chapter in Phogat's long list of comebacks. Back in the 2016 Rio Games, Phogat went out after twisting her right knee in her opening bout, an injury that required an ACL surgery. Out of action for almost a year, Phogat bounced back with gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, following it up with a World Championships bronze in 2019.

A quarter-final exit at the 2021 Tokyo Games revealed her struggles with Covid-19 and depression, but another comeback awaited at the 2022 Commonwealth Games -- she bagged gold in 53kg -- and at the World Championships later in the year that saw her win a second bronze.

Next, she embarked on what remains the biggest fight of her career. Together with fellow wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, she waged a grim protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) dispensation, demanding justice for alleged sexual harassment of women wrestlers by then WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh.

There was also an injury to her left knee and an ACL surgery that ruled her out for six months. The protracted struggle did take a toll on her fellow protestors -- Bajrang is not the same wrestler he was, flopping at the Asian Games before being outclassed at the national selection trials. Malik quit the sport after Sanjay Singh's panel won the WFI polls last year. Phogat, meanwhile, has firmly chugged on.

She won the national championships earlier this year (55kg), got back with Hungarian coach Woller Akos, and won the 50kg trials to book her flight to Bishkek where she has punched the ticket to Paris. With Japan, China and Mongolia having already secured a quota in 50kg at last year's World Championships, Phogat got the headstart she needed. She barely broke sweat in achieving her goal.

While uncertainty prevails over whether or not WFI will conduct a final selection trial, Phogat has done everything she could to make it to the Games. Since the quota belongs to the NOC and not to the individual, it remains to be seen if, in case of a selection trial, she would go back to her pet 53kg class and challenge quota-holder Antim Panghal, or choose to defend her 50kg berth.

Anshu, Reetika win quota spots

Tokyo Olympian Anshu Malik (57kg) and under-23 world champion Reetika Hooda (76kg) also bagged quota spots, taking the overall quota count to four, all in the women's section. Malik, a former Asian champion and world championships silver medallist, beat Uzbekistan’s Laylokhon Sobirova, an Asian Games bronze medallist, 11-0 in the semi-finals to secure her quota.

Hooda beat South Korea’s Hwang Eun-ju, Mongolia's Davaanasan Enkh Amar and China’s Juan Wang to make the semi-finals before blanking Chinese Taipei’s Hui Tsz Chang 7-0 in the quota bout. Mansi Ahlawat fell one win short in the 62kg class.

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    Shantanu Srivastava is an experienced sports journalist who has worked across print and digital media. He covers cricket and Olympic sports.

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