India’s leading wrestler Vinesh Phogat has decided to move up to the 53 kg weight category from her preferred 50 kg beginning with the ongoing Dan Kolov tournament in Bulgaria with an aim to lower the risk of injuries and remain in wrestling for a longer period.
With same-day weigh-in made mandatory by United World Wrestling, the governing body of the sport, wrestlers who cut considerable amount of weight have found it difficult to regain full strength by the time the competition begins. Vinesh too reduces around eight to nine kilograms to make the 50 kg weight limit.
“I will be competing in the 53 kg category this year and possibly at the World Championships and Olympics as well if I qualify,” Vinesh told Scroll.in from Bulgaria. “It is a decision that my coach Woller Akos and me have taken after a lot of thought. Let’s see how it goes.”
Vinesh had competed in the 48 kg category since her senior international debut apart from occasional appearance in the 53-55 kg category. But since the rejig of weight categories in January 2018 when the 48 kg was scrapped, she had to move up to 50 kg.
In the past five years, the 24-year-old has been one of India’s most successful wrestlers winning back-to-back Commonwealth Games gold and becoming the first female wrestler to win gold at Asian Games in 2018 after winning the bronze in 2014 edition. Her results makes her one of India’s biggest medal prospects at the Tokyo Games next year.
“Injuries was the main issue and if I stay injury free, I can wrestle long term,” she said. “It’s not like Tokyo Games are the end of my career. I have to think ahead as well. It’s a 50-50 decision and I’ll know more clearly closer to the world championships in September but till then I will be in 53 kg,” said Vinesh, who had to lose four kilograms in three days in Jakarta during the Asian Games.
Struggling with weight reduction
The 24-year-old has been struggling with weight reduction in recent times and had wrestled in the 57 kg weight category at the senior national championships in December last year. At the beginning of this year, she competed in 53 kg category at the Pro Wrestling League but with a two kg allowance.
She had failed to make the weight during the first World Olympic qualifiers in Mongolia in 2016 and had to qualify for the Rio Games in the last qualifiers. But her journey in Rio ended in a career-threatening knee injury on the mat.
The new category will throw fresh challenges for Vinesh, who last wrestled at the international stage at the Asian Games in August.
“We will look at the opponents in 53 kg and how we have prepare against them,” she said. “I have always tried training and learning against opponents of 50 kg but now it will change.
“I have to work on upper body strength now since I will be competing against heavier opponents. I have to improve my skill set accordingly,” she added.
Her first test will come on Saturday when she takes the mat at the Dan Kolov tournament. She will begin against Uzbekistan’s A Keunimjaeva and faces a potential semi-final against current world champion Sarah Hildebrandt of USA.
But Vinesh is not concerned about the results at this tournament. “This is the first competition of the season so I will not be stressed about it (result). I have not thought that I have to win a gold medal here. I am here to check my progress and know my opponents.”
The 53 kg category has thrown a few surprises in the past and unlike other categories, no wrestler has dominated it. While Haruna Okuna was world champion in 2018, Belarus’ Vanesa Kaladzinskaya, who Vinesh beat in PWL in January, took the title in 2017. Mayu Mukaida of Japan won the silver medal in 2017.
Vinesh believes that there are no favourites in the category at the world level or in India.
“The 53 kg category is an open category,” she said. “There is no one who is a favourite to win a gold medal in every tournament at the world level. You see 50 kg or any other, there are two three names that crop up as the favourites but this category is undecided.
“I wrestled a few times in 53 kg and 55 kg in the past but I was never serious about it. Now is the time to get serious,” she added.