After battling injuries, Vinesh Phogat eyes Tokyo Olympics berth


“The biggest change in Vinesh in these couple of years is her level of confidence. She has gone through so much that it has made her believe that she can beat anybody on the mat,” India’s women’s team coach Kuldeep Malik.

Vinesh Phogat flew to Kazakhstan on Thursday to participate in the World Championships—that will also serve as qualifier for 2020 Tokyo Olympics—safe in the knowledge that she is injury-free. The last five years has seen Phogat endure a series of injuries, so she will consider her fitness the first big hurdle crossed before she has even taken the mat. Last year she had to pull out of the world meet at the very last minute because of an elbow injury.

Once she lands in Nur-Sultan, Vinesh would not want to remember that day in August at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she had to be stretchered off the mat, wincing in pain, crying in disappointment, after she badly hurt her knee against China’s Sun Yanan in the women’s 49kg quarter-finals. The next few months she was wheelchair-bound after a surgery. She did not know if she would fight in another Olympics; she had to learn how to walk again first.

The fierce drive she has to win an Olympic medal brought her back to the mat, and now she would be hoping to seal a berth for the Tokyo Games from the first qualifying tournament. There are six spots available and Phogat is the favourite in 53kg.

Her comeback from that career-threatening injury has been stunning. It was gold all the way, be it in the Asian Games or the Commonwealth Games—both last year—Phogat looked in a hurry to make up for lost time, before an elbow injury in training put a dent to her rolling form and stopped her from competing at last year’s World Championships. A two-month recovery period later, Phogat was back on the mat again at the national championships in November.

“The biggest change in Vinesh in these couple of years is her level of confidence. She has gone through so much that it has made her believe that she can beat anybody on the mat,” India’s women’s team coach Kuldeep Malik told HT.

Intense Training

Malik has witnessed her travails closely from the Rio Games onwards and says Phogat is primed up for the World Championships. Unlike the team that has been camping in Kazakhstan from two weeks to train, Phogat chose to stay back and train at home in Sonepat with her personal coach Woller Akos from Hungary. Phogat has been testing herself on the mat against male wrestlers and against Akos’s wife Marianna Sastin, a 62kg wrestler.

Phogat, who was made her career in the 50kg category, shifted to 53kg following the change in rule that weigh-in should happen on the day of competition and not a day in advance.

“Her normal weight used to be more than 50kg, so in a way it has helped that she doesn’t need to expend her energy to shed her weight,” says Malik.

But the change in category also means that Phogat will be up against faster and stronger opponents. “You need more speed and power in 53kg. In 50 kg speed is important but here it is both speed and strength. Every opponent is strong and you need to have the stamina to last till the end,” Phogat had said after her first international tournament in the new weight class in March. There she had lost to China’s Qiaun Pang in the final.

Since then she has won three consecutive gold medals in 53kg—Poland Open, Grand Prix of Spain and Yasar Dogu International at Istanbul—before being completely outclassed by N Malisheva of Russia in the final of the Medved event in Minsk, Belarus, last month.

Malik says it is not much of a setback. “In wrestling if you get one good grip of the opponent you can turn the entire match. She had beaten the Russian before in an earlier tournament. Vinesh has prepared well and she is in good shape. She is raring to go at the world championships,” said Kuldeep.

Men: Ravi Dahiya (57kg), Bajrang Punia (65kg), Sushil Kumar (74kg) Deepak Punia (86kg), Mausam Khatri (97kg) and Sumit Malik (125kg)

Women: Seema (50kg), Vinesh Phogat (53kg), Sarita Mor (57kg), Sakshi MAlik (62kg) , Divya Kakran (68kg), Kiran (76kg)

Greco Roman Manish Kundu (60kg), Manish (67kg), Gurpreet Singh (77kg), Sunil Kumar (87kg), RAvi (97kg), Naveen (130kg)

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