Nursultan: It’s fitting that the final pep talk Vinesh Phogat got before her bronze medal bout was from Sushil Kumar. India’s two-time Olympic medallist reminded Phogat of what’s at stake and how much it will mean to the country.
Phogat did not disappoint either. On Wednesday, the girl from Haryana became India’s first wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and won her first World Championships medal – a bronze. She also became the first Indian woman wrestler to qualify for two Olympics having competed in Rio Games.
“Ye medal gold hi laga lo [This feels like a gold medal],” Phogat said. “My first World Championships medal and I get to go to the Olympics.”
Winning in wrestling isn’t new for Phogat. She has been doing this ever since she was 12-years-old. But none of those earlier triumphs match the one at the World Championships in Nursultan, Kazakhstan. After losing to Japan’s Mayu Mukaida in the pre-quarterfinals, Phogat got a chance in the repechage where she dominated every opponent and claimed the medal with a pinfall.
The comparison to a gold medal is apt as well. Handed a tough draw in the 53 kg category, Phogat had to go through Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sofia Mattsson, two-time world champion Mukaida and world number one wrestler Sarah Hilderbrandt of USA. Though she lost to Mukaida, the Indian was dominant in all other bouts.
Only five Indian women have medals at the World Championships but no one has won it the way Phogat did. Mattsson was defeated 9-2 and even in the loss, Phogat made Mukaida work hard. In the repechage round, Phogat was unstoppable.
She began with a convincing win over Yulia Blahinya of Ukraine, controlled the entire six minutes against Hilderbrandt and pinned Maria Prevolaraki of Greece in the bronze medal bout.
“It doesn’t feel anything like I have on a bronze medal,” she said. “I did not think about the medal or even the quota. I am blank. Maybe when I switch on my phone and read the message of the people, I will realise what I have achieved.”
One explanation of this state of mind is her recent success. She has won a medal at every tournament she has participated in this year. The seven medals have made her an international star and a threat to the very best too. They know Vinesh and she figures in all their plans now. There is no avoiding her.
Winning medals at three ranking tournaments, Asian Championships, Spain Grand Prix and Medved International, gave Phogat the confidence to adjust to the new weight category – she moved from 50 kg to 53 kg at the start of this year.
“Those medals mean nothing, to be honest,” she said. “It wasn’t about ranking or medals, it was just about knowing opponents and not think about the future.”
It is one of the problems that Phogat has faced all her career. She sometimes gets ahead of herself. For example, in 2015, despite leading against Yuki Irie at the Asian Championships with 15 seconds remaining, she got hit by a counter and lost.
“I was thinking about the future. I thought I had won,” Phogat said. “It always happens to me. It’s funny because it was one of the fears I had here. In Paris, I thinking about Japan wrestlers and how I will wrestle them. I lost to Victoria Anthony of USA. I was thinking about the future when I should have concentrated on Anthony.”
Staying in the moment
Even Phogat’s personal coach Woller Akos of Hungary was surprised to see that she doesn’t have a World Championships medal.
“When I met Vinesh first time last year in Hungary, I asked myself why hasn’t she won a world championship medal,” Woller Akos, her coach, said. “I did not understand that. She understands everything about wrestling and has pure talent.
“There was no system. She did not have any medal,” he said. “When we saw the draw in Nursultan, I told her to tackle Mattsson first and not think about Mukaida.”
Phogat did exactly that. Even though she had defeated Mattsson just a month ago, Phogat was not over-confident. Winning that bout meant facing Mukaida in the next.
“She is very strong,” Phogat said. “When I got hit with a takedown, she took a tight grip of my stomach and I had injured those muscles last month. Immediately, the thought that I might get injured again came and she rolled me for two more points. So I wasn’t there in that bout.”
Despite her loss, Phogat showed great improvement from her 0-10 loss to the Japanese at the Asian Championships in April.
“Mukaida has a weak defence in certain techniques but I am not strong in those attacks,” she said. “So I have to work on that. Wrestling is a body game so you need to change that very quickly. I have defeated the North Korea wrestler who became the world champ twice. She destroyed Mukaida. It’s different with every wrestler.”
Like Hilderbrandt conceded after her loss to Phogat in the repechage round.
“I have never practiced these crazy situations that Vinesh’s puts you in,” she said. “She is very unorthodox and I am unable to finish against her. She improvises so much that it makes it difficult.”
Phogat, on her part, was at her best against Hilderbrandt. Of all her wins, that was the most controlled one with little or no chance given to her opponent.
“Hilderbrandt was getting too tired. So I wanted her to attack my legs because I knew how she will attack and I had the perfect defence for her,” she said.
Hours later, she did win the medal with a pin. In a show of strength, Phogat made a mess of her Greek opponent.
China’s Quyian Pang, who won the second bronze medal, had defeated Phogat in February but lost to her in the Asian Championships where she realised the change in Phogat.
“Her strength is incredible,” Pang said. “Her upper body is strong and she puts you in positions where you cannot get out. It’s incredible.”
It’s a result of the new regime designed by her coach Akos, focusing on increasing her upper body strength to help in the new category.
But following a new diet and training regime was also a big problem for Phogat.
“I don’t like following any regime,” she said. “I want to break the rules because that is how I achieve my zone. I want to eat spicy food so I will eat spicy food.”
“Shopping and food are two things that can change anything. That’s how it all falls in place”
The medal will give her the freedom to break the rules at least for one day. So Phogat ate a sandwich, chicken and managed to sneak in some sweets too.
An emotional Phogat is standing in the tunnel, ready to receive her bronze medal. It’s been close to an hour since she won but the feeling has just sunk in. Suffering from cold, her eyes are watering and one might think that she is shedding a tear.
There are no memories of her bouts or her opponents. She doesn’t even ask someone to click her photos.
“Mera dimag khali hai [My mind is empty],” she said. “I am wondering how to handle the crowd if any will come at the airport. Then, should I head to my parents house or my in-laws?”
Those thoughts are broken by a few selfie-seeking fans and a few congratulatory handshakes.
“Medal and Olympics. Very good.”
The last time she was at the Olympics, it had ended abruptly. Phogat lay on mat in Rio, screaming in pain after injuring her knee in a bout against Sun Yanan of China. Her dreams of an Olympic medal shattered.
“I did not think about Rio at all this time. In the Asian Games, I still thought about it because I wanted to beat Sun Yanan,” she said “But not now. The feeling is very different. I have come a long way.”
Later in the evening when things settled down, Phogat switched on her phone. She received calls from her family. The moment she ended the calls, she had a big smile on her face.
“Actually, I did think about Rio,” she conceded. “I was injured and everything looked like it’s over. But I got back and am still wrestling.
“Olympics, medals, Rio, Tokyo. Nothing matters. I have a family which calls me irrespective of the results. That’s what matters.”