Nursultan: The training session is intense. Around 200 wrestlers have packed the warm-up area at the Barys Arena. There are cornrow braid sporting women wrestlers, the noise of thuds is loud as two wrestlers take turns to throw each other round. A few are trying to reduce weight while others are giving final touches to their preparations. Amongst them is Vinesh Phogat with her coach Woller Akos as well, involved in a light training session before she begins her World Championships campaign on Tuesday.
A few volunteers and wrestlers make pit-stops to watch her train. Sitting far away from Phogat is China’s Sun Yanan who is also watching the Indian train and has the 53 kg weight category draw in her hand.
“She has come a long way but this draw looks very difficult,” Yanan said. “I have wrestled her four times but she is different every time. She will be different here as well.”
Phogat has been drawn in the same half as Rio Olympic medallist Sofia Mattsson of Sweden, 55 kg world champion Muya Mukaida of Japan and world number one Sarah Hilderbrandt. To win her first-ever World Championships medal, Phogat has to go through a minefield.
“She can win it all,” Yanan said. “Mukaida is the best but Phogat has sharper mind and she wrestles very hard. In the past few years, her strength has increased a lot. She is equal to the Japan wrestler if not better.”
Yanan has experienced it first-hand. After three wins over Phogat, she suffered a one-sided defeat at the Asian Games last year where Phogat won gold. But that was in 50 kg category. The Indian has moved up to 53 kg since then, lost 0-10 to Mukaida at Asian Championships this year.
Olympic quota at stake
The Indian camp is tensed. Four women wrestlers will take the mat on Tuesday in 50 kg, 53 kg, 55 kg and 72 kg. The first two offer Olympic quotas while the other two are non-Olympic weight categories. Seema Bisla in 50 kg has three-time Olympic medallist Maria Stadnik in her first bout. Phogat has Mattsson who has won a Rio Games bronze medal.
“I am thinking about the draw even if I don’t want to,” Phogat said. “It gets in your head but it doesn’t go with you on the mat. But the feeling is good. I have prepared for this moment for so long, let’s face it.”
In the last few months, Phogat has the been on a medal-winning spree in China, Spain, Turkey, Poland and Belarus. She even beat Mattsson 4-0 in Poland which gives her an equal chance on Tuesday. There is Olympic quotas on line and she would like to get one. So will her coach Akos.
“It’s always about one match at a time,” he said. “The draw is hard but we don’t have to fight a draw but real wrestlers. First bout is always important bout and I am hoping for a good start.”
Since joining forces with the Hungarian just before Asian Games, Phogat has tasted international success. The training has become stricter and the diet plans have changed. Phogat, despite being a star in India, does not enjoy any preferential treatment when Akos is around.
At the beginning of this year, she moved up from 50 kg to 53 kg as her walking weight of around 57 kg made it difficult for her body to endure the draining weight cuts. Then the United World Wrestling decided the same-day weigh-ins on two days which further made it difficult for wrestlers like Phogat to reduce too much weight.
“Of course the 50 kg category is easier than this,” Akos said. “But it was difficult for her to make that weight. Every time you reduce weight, the body picks up small injuries and muscles continue to break.”
A similar situation made her miss last year’s World Championships. An elbow injury which she suffered while training at the Sports Authority of India centre in Lucknow. Phogat knew this could happen again anytime.
“They mixed everything up,” Akos said. “One day they did speed exercises, the next day, anaerobic system, then strength system. It didn’t make any sense.”
Changing the system
Akos took it upon himself to change her schedule since then. He would tell Indian coaches to give her rest before major competition rather than increasing the load. He then prepared a training-chart which he explains through an excel sheet on his laptop. It was a mix of aerobic and anaerobic exercises based on weeks.
He also included more rest to keep Phogat fresh for the World Championships and not get bored of wrestling. “Before coming to Kazakhstan, I wanted fresh head,” he said. “You shouldn’t hate the wrestling mat. You should want to bite the mat. If she is fresh in mind, she will bite.”
Her first chance comes Tuesday. Mattsson never stops wrestling in the six minutes but Phogat frustrated her by blocking her attacks during the Poland Open last month. Her style makes it difficult for Swede to complete her holds. In Poland, while Vinesh also did not push much, it was a tactical move.
“Vinesh’s transitions are better but Mattson’s style is arm work and is more static. Her upper body is stronger and she catches the head and arm,” Akos said. “Vinesh has to wrestle a no-contact-wrestling. Just stay in touch but do not go all out. That will be the plan.”
It’s something Vinesh might have to follow in almost every bout. “Vinesh still needs to do more. Now what is very important is feet motion and arm works,” Akos said. “Sometimes, Vinesh just stands and waits but in this category, the wrestlers need more motion, more fakes, more arm work.”
But both Phogat and Akos know that it is not impossible to win a medal at World Championships, something she has never done. She also knows that results before this tournament do not matter.
“PV Sindhu hasn’t won anything this year but she won the World Championships and that’s the only thing that people will remember,” she said. “I’ll give everyone a chance to celebrate. I know the draw. But you know what happened at Asian Games, right?”