Last year, the Rio Olympics provided a glimpse of what India’s women athletes are capable of.
PV Sindhu won a silver medal in badminton. Dipa Karmakar put Indian gymnastics on the map. Lalita Babar entered the 3,000-metre steeplechase final and Aditi Ashok became the first woman to enter the final round of women’s golf at Rio. In wrestling, Sakshi Malik bagged bronze in the 58 kg category to hand India their second individual medal.
However, the only heartbreak in the women’s division was the grave knee injury wrestler Vinesh Phogat suffered during her bout against China’s Sun Yanan in their quarter-final bout of the freestyle 48 kg category. Five months later, Phogat is back on the mat and raring to go.
“It’s been six months of determination and hard work if I had to sum it up,” Phogat told Scroll.in. “I still remember the incident as if it happened yesterday and that helps me to push myself harder. I have been recovering well, though. The JSW sports team had been exceptionally helpful and I couldn’t have done this without them and the faith they showed.”
Phogat added that she never lost hope since everyone, from the physios to the trainers and right up to the management, “has been so positive”. The 22-year-old said she has “made great progress” since August and is now “able to train on the mat”.
Fighting self-doubt, despair and agony
The comeback was not easy for Phogat. From anger to despair and even self-doubt, the 22-year-old has fought it all. “I wasn’t angry, but desperate to get fit,” she said. “I have learnt that I need to be more patient with myself, give myself a little credit every now and then. I had a lot of doubt especially when the doctors said this will be a tough road and any bump along the way would mean that my career was over. There were times when even I gave up, but even then, I never lost sight of the bigger picture. At those times I remembered why I chose to be a wrestler and the joys of the sport. When I focused on those aspects, they seemed too much to give up and I got determined to fight again.”
Phogat is aiming to get back in action in May during the Asian Championships in Delhi. However, she wants to take it easy for now. “The last few months I have spent in Bangalore recovering with the help of my team,” said the talented wrestler. “For now, I’m working on perfecting my basics. There is a national wrestling camp in Lucknow. Once I am confident that my basics are 100%, I will move on to technical tactics and improve my skills. For now, my eyes are set on the Asian Championships and the World Championships.”
Memories of Rio
With Sakshi Malik winning a bronze, Phogat too fancied her chances of bagging a medal that night in Rio. “I was confident of winning the medal that evening, and if it was not for injury, I would have definitely bagged one that night,” said the confident 22-year-old. “I cannot point out exactly where I would have stood at the podium, but I am confident that I would have brought home a medal from it. But now since that has passed, I will work hard to bring a gold back from Tokyo 2020.”
Phogat also said that the knee injury was the biggest setback of her career. “My injury at Rio was the toughest challenge till now,” she said. “I still remember how I was in denial and just wanted to get up from the stretcher and complete the bout. I kept crying and trying to get up but my lower body just refused to respond. That was the toughest thing ever to deal with. But I’m happy that I worked hard and am back on the mat today.”
The fighting spirit was instilled in Phogat thanks to the training she derived from her tauji (uncle) Mahavir Singh Phogat. What is the philosophy her coach shares, though?
“I think hard work and the spirit of never giving up,” she said. “Tauji was a very very strict task master. You had to give more than your 100% each time or bear his wrath, which, trust me, was reason enough to never give up no matter how tough it got. I remember when he used to make me run, if I even stopped for a fraction of a second, he made me start running from the beginning. With that kind of training, we had to be hardworking as we had no other option.”
Even during her time of injury, her cousins Geeta Phogat and Babita Kumari stood by her like a rock. “My cousins have always been very encouraging and have been helping me by sharing their experiences over the years,” said Vinesh Phogat. “Since I come from a family of wrestlers, they were disappointed with my injury. However, they knew it was a part of the sport I had signed up for. They were confident that I’ll get better so here I am.”
‘Wrestling has undergone a sea of change’
According to Phogat, wrestling has seen a sea of change in the country in terms of infrastructure. “I think with every win the infrastructure has improved a little bit,” she said. “When we started out there was no fans, no proper training facilities, no water...it was a very bad scenario.”
However, once the losses turned into victories, there was no looking back. “When we started winning more and more the government and the sports authority started to recognise the potential that each of the wrestlers had and made a little improvement. If I count from the day I began till today, there has been a sea change, but having said that, there is a lot more to be done as well. So I would let that be our motivation and win more and more to ensure that the wrestling infrastructure in the country improves.”
Talking about the women athletes taking the sporting world by storm, Phogat said that dedication is all that you need. “Be yourself, no matter how tough it gets. If you want to be a wrestler, dedicate yourself to the mat. Let the mat be the only thing that dictates how you lead your life. Learn to convert the negative into the fuel that feeds the fire in you. Work hard and be honest to your sport.”