Vinesh Phogat resumes Tokyo Olympics re-build with title in Kiev meet
Vinesh Phogat’s two successive tweets revealed her frame of mind entering the Olympic year. On New Year eve, she wrote how at the start of 2020 every athlete carried so much hope and belief and dreamt of going to the Tokyo Olympics but ‘unfortunately something dramatically different was in store for us. It is still sinking in,’ she tweeted.
The next day, she wished everyone with this line: “New year, new hopes and new are the spirits.”
It was that sort of a year for the top wrestler—a make-or-break one. The postponement of the Olympics due to the pandemic came as a big blow and one of India’s best medal hopes in Tokyo was left shattered. She had reason to feel so down.
In the 2016 Rio Olympics, she was a medal contender but a serious knee injury in the quarter-finals against China’s Sun Yanan saw her being stretchered off in tears. A surgery followed. The next 18 months were spent fighting what an athlete dreads most—self-pity and grave doubts—while trying to make a near-miraculous full recovery and find the mental resolve to get back on the mat.
All because she wanted to give it all at the Tokyo Olympics. She came out of her lowest phase like a champion winning everything in front of her; and just when she was so close to Tokyo, the pandemic struck. Those who spoke to Vinesh the day the Olympics were postponed felt the grief that had struck her. “Will I be able to compete in another Olympics?” kept ringing in her voice.
If that wasn’t enough, despite all efforts to stay safe and train near home under her personal coach, she contracted COVID in August. It stopped training for a month. She had a dry cough when she started again and was asked to go slow. “All the training I had done during the lockdown had gone waste. I had to start afresh. When the bout of cough happened, I used to take a break. It took around six weeks for the cough to completely go,” she had said.
Her Hungarian coach Woller Akos had been sending her the training schedule during the lockdown phase. Once the borders opened, Akos visited Kharkhoda in November to prepare Vinesh for the big battle again. In January, she flew with her coach to Budapest and then to Spala, adopting a high-intensity training regimen and sparring Akos had planned to condition her body and mind for the grind again. The first test for Vinesh was at the Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial tournament in Kiev, stepping on the mat in any competition after a year but showing that her quest for an Olympic medal was on.
She claimed the 53kg gold in Kiev on Sunday, pinning 2012 and 2017 Belarussian world champion Vanesa Kaladzinskaya with a dramatic late manoeuvre. Through two days of competition, Vinesh put her body through the rigour of top-level competition. She played four bouts on Saturday, running through an impressive field, showing the hunger and the mental steel she epitomises. She made some big moves—a slam in the semi-final against Romanian Andreea Ana showed her power as she lifted her opponent on her shoulders and virtually slammed her down, coming through some tense moments with her full range of skills on show.
In the quarter-final, she beat I Leorda of Moldova 2-0, showing her defensive skills towards the end. In her first bout, she overcame Aktenge Keunimjaeva 3-1 before going past K Pickkouskaya of Belarus 5-1 in the quarters.
Vinesh reserved her best for the title bout against Vanesa, the European champion. A thrilling contest saw both scoring through big four-point throws. Vinesh opened a 4-0 lead with a swift move in the first period, but Vanesa quickly was back to equal terms with an attack. Vinesh went into the break two points ahead (6-4).
Vanesa turned the tables by scoring another four-pointer on the edge of the mat. With barely 60 seconds left on the clock, Vinesh went for the jugular, using a leg trip. Though Vinesh seemed to momentarily lose balance in the process, she showed good control to finish the move and pin Vanesa with 25 seconds left.
A bigger challenge awaits Vinesh in the Rome ranking series next week. But her journey has resumed, and is filled with purpose again.