There has never been a time when an Indian female wrestler has been projected to win a medal at the Olympics. Sakshi Malik – India’s first woman wrestler to win a medal at Olympics – was not even given an outside chance during the Rio Games build-up. But Vinesh Phogat is primed to win a medal, and even the gold, in Tokyo.
She did compete at Rio and fans hoped for a medal but it was never a given. Five years later, she is their biggest hope.
If one goes by her record, she has to be. In the 17 competitions she has wrestled in since the Rio Olympics, she has won a medal in each one of them barring the 2017 World Championships. Out of the 16 medals, one is a bronze medal at the World Championships in 2019 which qualified her for the Olympics. Nine others are gold.
Phogat’s rise in world wrestling has been remarkable. Her injury in Rio cast doubts over her wrestling career, weight loss was an issue and an injury forced her to be away from the 2018 World Championships.
That worked as a trigger as well. Phogat jumped up to the 53kg weight class from 50kg at the start of 2019. With only 18 months to go for the Tokyo Olympics, it was a big risk and she always had her doubts. It took some time, but she accepted to wrestle in the higher-weight class.
While the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown life off the track around the world, it proved to be a blessing in disguise for Phogat, at least in hindsight.
“I got one extra year to adjust to a new weight category,” said Phogat.
Adjust is an understatement as Phogat has gone on to become a top contender in the new weight class. She is the Asian champion in it, won ranking series gold medals and will be the top seed for the Tokyo Olympics – the only Indian with that credential.
But how did Phogat become the best in India and be on the verge of being the best in the world?
A month before the 2018 World Championships in Budapest, Phogat was training with Pooja Dhanda at the national camp in Lucknow. While engaged in sparring, Phogat felt pain in her elbow. She stopped training and decided to get some rest. The next day, she flew to Mumbai to get her scans done and unfortunately, she had torn a ligament. The Asian Games champion at 50kg was primed to win a medal at the Worlds but was forced to miss the event owing to an injury.
What followed was a series of meetings and phone calls between her and coach Woller Akos, who had joined her team just before the Asian Games. It was his instructions via WhatsApp to Phogat from Hungary that helped her plan her route to gold in Jakarta. She became the first woman wrestler from India to win gold at the Asiad.
Akos had been trying to convince Phogat to shift from 50kg to 53kg or keep missing important tournaments because of injuries or weight loss issues. Given her history, Akos was not wrong.
Phogat had missed weight during the Olympic Qualifier before Rio. Now an injury had forced her to miss the Worlds. She had tried wrestling at higher weight classes when not wrestling internationally. But still, she was apprehensive. The Olympics were less than two years away. Shifting a weight class meant relearning the sport. Her answer was no.
Much before she admitted it, Phogat had been suffering from dizziness on the mat because of the low salt and water level in her body. Even at 53kg, she suffers from those problems.
For wrestling, once you are past the age where you can solely rely on your strength, techniques become your saviour. Phogat wasn’t old but she had a lower level of strength than her opponents at 53kg.
When wrestling at 50kg, Phogat had the advantage of crushing her opponents with her incredible strength despite not being in the right position or balance. Even a half attack would result in points for her.
She said it was her “over strength” that made her confident at 50kg and doubtful to switch to 53kg. And that was evident when she started in the new weight class. It made her reassess the attacking strategy.
“Even if my attacks were half attempts at 50kg, I would finish them with my strength but not at 53kg,” she said. “The attack has to be 100% or else the opponents can also stop me from attacking. So if you see my bouts, I take a minute or so to understand them and then decide my attacks. If they are making their moves or waiting for my moves.”
At the Dan Kolov ranking series, she pinned the then world silver-medallist Sarah Hilderbrandt of USA but lost 2-9 against China’s Qiaun Pang in the final. Two months later, she dropped her quarter-final against Mayu Mukaida of Japan 0-10 at the Asian Championships.
“I had all these doubts back then,” she said. “No 50kg wrestler would have scored any points on me with the defence I did against Mukaida.”
Well, she was not wrestling at 53kg and the sooner she made peace with it, the better it would be. It took a hat-trick of gold medals in 2019 to raise her confidence.
Going back to the bout against Pang in Bulgaria, Phogat tried defending a 2-0 lead for the entire six minutes. She managed for five but gave up eight points in the final minute. Akos did not like that. He wanted her to wrestle hard for both periods.
The two worked on her stamina with intense workouts in the Lucknow heat and then on trips to Poland. Her strength increased and so did her heart-rate capacity. Then the sprints and weightlifting helped her increase her speed on the mat.
One would assume these are basics that wrestlers perform in the gym. But it was Akos who brought the change in Phogat’s training. The result – Phogat was defending well and attacking from anywhere she wanted.
Hilderbrandt, her opponent at the 2019 World Championships, noted the same in a loss to Phogat in the repechage round.
“I have never practiced these crazy situations that Vinesh puts you in,” she had said. “She is very unorthodox and I am unable to finish against her. She improvises so much that it makes it difficult.”
With age and experience, Vinesh was using her skills and anticipation to put her opponents in difficult positions.
“My reaction time has improved,” she said. “I have observed it in my wrestling. I have learned more movements of my hands and legs. They are better than before.”
For any wrestler, reaction times equals their capability to defend an attack or counter a fake from the opponent. Phogat has been guilty of sitting on her lead and waiting for the time to expire. In the past, that put her in trouble with either the opponent wrestling back into the match or the referee warning her for passivity.
Akos did not try to change her approach but managed to bring improvements in a way where Phogat doesn’t remain passive. She used the same approach at the 2019 Worlds but with a difference.
“Earlier I used to defend by being away from the opponent,” she said. “I was being passive. I am passive even now but I am in contact with the wrestler.”
She lets wrestlers attack her legs but thanks to a combination of strength, speed and newfound confidence, she still manages to come out on top.
But all that did not matter once Covid-19 struck last year.
Two months into the worldwide announcements of various lockdowns, the International Olympic Committee and Japan mutually agreed to postpone the Olympics by a year.
Phogat was still recovering from the shock of the news when her phone rang. Woller Akos wanted to brief her about the training for the delayed Olympics. Phogat was furious.
“I was raging,” she recalled. “My mind had not processed the news and the coach, sitting in Hungary, is sending me a schedule for the next week. I totally lost it.”
Understandably, it was the last stop in her phenomenal comeback story from Rio to Tokyo.
For Akos, who joined Phogat only in 2018, it was a complex situation to motivate a wrestler who has carved her own path in Indian wrestling. He could not force her but he wanted her to continue training, Olympics or not.
“When he got to know, he was angry and his aggression was different,” she said.
She began training, got infected with Covid-19 and later resumed training to prepare for the Olympics.
“What if the Olympics are announced suddenly then what will I do, who will I blame,” she thought to herself.
For the next nine months, Phogat trained in Kharkhoda, Lucknow, Spala, Budapest and Kiev before wrestling in February this year, a year after her last competition – at the Asian Championships in New Delhi.
She won gold in Kiev, gold in a ranking series event in Rome, gold at the Asian Championships in Almaty, and gold at the Poland Open in June which gave her the top seed for Tokyo. It looked like Phogat was never off the mat but that was not the case.
“From the outside, it may look like everything is alright but I can feel the difference,” she said. “It took time to come back to the level I was. My mind and body were not in tandem until the Poland Open in June.
“There is no form. You have to adjust to wrestling and the body. I wrestled in Ukraine but did not feel that, nor in Rome or Almaty. In Poland, yes. So I just hope till Tokyo I can be the same like I was in Poland.”
Phogat also stressed that the quality of her opponents was not the best which made her take time to attain the peak level.
“A few wrestlers can achieve that ‘form’ in one competition, others take time,” she said. “Opponents weren’t the best, so my mind was not working the same way as it would have had I been wrestling Japan or China. But then we are at least getting something, imagine being a wrestler from Japan or China.”
Wrestlers from Japan have not competed since the Asian Championships in New Delhi. They were supposed to travel to Almaty but a last-minute revelation that the team was exposed to a Covid-positive person made them cancel their plans. China did not even bother sending a team.
At the four competitions that she wrestled in this year, no opponent was from Japan, China, USA or Russia and Monglia, the only five nations to qualify wrestlers in all six weight classes.
But Phogat said she can’t control these things and she can only prepare for the Games. The delayed Olympics have some positives for her as well.
“Last year, I didn’t know a few wrestlers, they did not know me,” she explained. “Now everyone knows that we have to prepare for her [Phogat] as well. I know I have to prepare as well. It would have been different in 2020 but this year it’s difficult for them and for me as well. Now I am stronger, wrestling is better because then I had shifted to a new category. Now I am 20 months into it. Mindset changes, I feel better. They are also preparing. One mistake and it’s done. 10-0. It’s all about that day.”
So when she wrestles at the Makuhari Messe on August 5 and 6 (if she reaches the medal bouts), Phogat will not take any chances.
First, she will have to travel all the way from Budapest to Frankfurt and then to Tokyo alone as she camped away from India. Her coach Akos is on a different flight, an issue she said could have been handled more smoothly by the authorities.
But she isn’t thinking about it nor does she think about the Olympics being the biggest moment of her career. A mature Vinesh Phogat is wrestling because she loves it.
“When it was announced that the Olympics will be delayed, then I had the feeling that I had counted the days for my second Olympics and now I have to wait more,” she recalled. “But as I said, I have changed a lot since Rio. Life has changed a lot. Now I accept things more easily. I’m not like how I used to be, carrying the same thing in my heart for over a year.
“The things which are not in my hands, I don’t care anymore. God has decided and not me. If I find that slip [in which it is written what will happen], I will tell you.”
List of women wrestlers in the 53kg category at Tokyo 2020:
No. 1 Vinesh Phogat (IND)
No. 2 Mayu MUKAIDA (JPN)
No. 3 Luisa Elizabeth VALVERDE MELENDRES (ECU)
No. 4 Qianyu PANG (CHN)
Maria PREVOLARAKI (GRE)
Joseph Emilienne ESSOMBE TIAKO (CMR)
Rckaela Maree Ramos AQUINO (GUM)
Roksana Marta ZASINA (POL)
Laura HERIN AVILA (CUB)
Jacarra Gwenisha WINCHESTER (USA)
Sofia Magdalena MATTSSON (SWE)
Vanesa KALADZINSKAYA (BLR)
Bolortuya BAT OCHIR (MGL)
Tatyana AKHMETOVA AMANZHOL (KAZ)
Olga KHOROSHAVTSEVA (RUS)
Andreea Beatrice ANA (ROU)