Moments after she won the bronze medal bout at the Asian Championships, Vinesh Phogat did a silent chest thump. It was unusual from Phogat who has rarely displayed her emotions on the mat since that unfortunate day in the Rio Olympics when she got injured mid-bout.
This, however, was understandable. She had lost in the quarter-final of the 53 kg category and it was only because of repechage that she reached the bronze medal bout. She was up against against Qianyu Pang of China, the player who had defeated her 8-2 in the finals of the Dan Kolov ranking tournament in March. Phogat, therefore, had revenge on her mind. She did avenge that loss with an identical scoreline and the chest thump defined what it meant to her.
Ever since moving up to the 53 kg category from 50 kg, in which she won the Asian Games gold among other medals, Phogat has focused on getting accustomed to new opponents and improving her strength. At the Asian Championships, despite the win over Pang, she found that she still has a long way to go.
“In Dan Kolov, I had not trained well,” she said. “These girls have insane strength and once again I realised I have really work hard. I am slowly getting there but I am way off in this category.”
There is some truth there. The Commonwealth Games champion faced 55 kg world champion Mayu Mukaida in her first bout and lost 0-10 in just over four minutes.
“It’s funny. Wrestling has the same moves and techniques but you move up a category and things change a lot. The same techniques don’t apply and you need a new set. So my coach was shouting out instructions and I was listening to them. Only that my body was not responding. It did not work,” she added.
Woller Akos, the personal coach with her, was in Phogat’s corner and barking out instructions. “Don’t stop, don’t stop,” Akos repeated.
Mukaida constantly attacked Phogat’s right leg, which seemed stationary. Despite her efforts to keep Mukaida’s head down, Phogat gave away points too easily. She explains that it was lack of strength that cost her the bout.
“If I had defended this much in 50 kg, there is no way I was giving up a single point. But this is completely different. That bout was one of the worst I have wrestled. I defended so well in that bout but still lost 0-10. The change is incredible,” she explained.
The 24-year-old, however, adapted well to the changes in the bronze medal bout. Against Pang, Phogat did respond to Akos’ instructions, especially on how to deal with the Chinese wrestler. In Bulgaria, she had taken a 2-0 lead and then sat on it as time slowly ticked.
In Xi’an, Phogat was off to a slow start and even conceded a point for being inactive. But the moment she got an opening, she completed a takedown. She then pulled out her favourite move by driving Pang and exposing her back to the mat to claim four points.
With two minutes left, Akos told Phogat: “Don’t stop hands”, “fake and pull”, “short steps forward” and “circle, circle, circle.”
Unlike most wrestlers, Phogat’s motion on the mat is linear, moving forward and backwards while engaging her opponents. This time, she went circular to make it difficult for Pang to catch hold of her legs, like she had done in Bulgaria.
Phogat’s defence was so good that she managed to get out of a dangerous position in which she could have given up four points, thanks to the circular motion which made it difficult for Pang to get a firm grip on her opponent’s thigh. In the final seconds, Pang had to resort to the inside-trip move. But Phogat was ready and pulled the Chinese down to get two more points.
“I am happy with the progress but it’s necessary to get more experience. They are opponents I have not wrestled in this category so I will participate in more competition to see how it goes,” she said.
But even while admitting that she is still getting used to the new category, Phogat is happy, happy that she could finish with a win and think of the bigger picture.
“I lost to Pang. Hara diya na usko. Bas [I defeated her. That’s good enough],” she concluded.