A freak injury and an Olympic run abruptly cut short five years ago, Vinesh Phogat says, have had a transformative effect on her perspective. One that's unflappable even in the face of the Tokyo Games hurtling towards uncertainty. "Earlier even if I had a finger injury I would feel disheartened and wonder, 'why me?'," says the 53 kg category wrestler and India's prominent Tokyo Games medal hope.
"I used to break down emotionally if I lost. I used to worry about what people would say. Now I am mature, I can handle defeats and I'm ready for anything. If I win a medal in Tokyo, it's not like I'm going to stop wrestling. So, even if the Games don't happen, I will still continue doing what I do. I'm now in the sport for myself, for the joy of wrestling," Vinesh said during a Zoom session organised by the Sports Authority of India. The 26-year-old had suffered a knee injury during her 48 kg quarterfinal bout against China Sun Yanan at the Rio Olympics and had to be stretchered out.
She's since moved up to the 53 kg event and has been training with Belgian coach Woller Akos. The association, she says, has brought about a fundamental change in the way she wrestles and views her opponents. "Earlier I would consider it a sign of weakness to study games of opponents. I would attack relentlessly during matches, even if I was losing. After I began working with my coach, I have begun using my hands better and I'm not in a hurry now. Earlier I was a front-on wrestler but now I do a lot of movement and I'm smoother and cleaner in technique. I time my attacks well now. There is a strategy in place for every single rival. We study games of all my opponents on Saturdays and pre bout, not just the big names. I never used to do any of these things earlier. I now realise it makes a big difference."
The 2018 Asian Games gold medallist admits that despite her impressive results at recent competitions, in Rome and Almaty, it didn't throw up an accurate assessment of her form leading up to Tokyo. She did not concede a single point in these two events, winning most of her bouts by fall. The field at these Championships however, was devoid of three strong rivals - Japan, China and North Korea. North Korea has already pulled out of the Olympics. "I did not go there aiming to win an Asian gold medal. First we heard that Korea pulled out, then China followed, after we reached, news came in that Japan too won't be competing. I was almost like, 'what's the point anymore?' Recovery was an issue after weight loss at the competition. I need to work on chain wrestling more."
Six Indian wrestlers - Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia, Ravi Dahiya, Sonam Malik, Anshu Malik and Vinesh Phogat, have qualified for the Olympics this year and Vinesh is heartened by the improved gender ratio in the squad. "The good thing is I feel none of our wrestlers carry the fear of losing. I'm happy that Sonam and Anshu have joined me for the Olympics and I'm no longer the only woman wrestler! They have a good chance but they're still young and need to build on experience. At least three of us can push each other to perform better."
Vinesh will be leaving for Bulgaria on Sunday, followed by trips to Poland and Budapest for training-cum-competitions. She's relieved that none of the countries on her itinerary have quarantine restrictions in place so far. She's, however, still waiting on word on vaccines promised by the Sports Ministry to all Olympic-bound athletes. Fellow wrestler Bajrang has already gone ahead and got himself privately inoculated. Vinesh, who recovered from Covid in September last year, though wants to wait for an official update.
"I don't want to go and do it by myself because that could be tricky. I hope we get it soon though and not too close to the Games. At least we should have time to recover from side-effects if any, before we leave for Tokyo."