With four World Championships going down the wire this month, India’s biggest promise of bringing silverware will rest upon the country’s wrestling contingent. India can boast of its list of elite wrestlers, which includes a current world number one, a two-time Olympic medallist and the country’s first female wrestler to claim an Olympic medal. While the top Indian wrestlers will eye a direct berth into the Olympics from the World Championship, even if they miss out on the quota, they will have chances to redeem their place in Tokyo 2020 through the Asian Qualification or the World Qualification tournaments later in the season.
Despite having Olympic record holders in the portfolio, the cynosure of all eyes in the Indian contingent will be Vinesh Phogat. The world no. 6 female wrestler in 53 kg category is unseeded, however, she is one of the toughest challengers. The Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist has every chance to finish on the podium at the UWW World Championship and as well bag a direct berth at the Olympics.
While most of the Indian grapplers headed to the World Championship venue in Kazakhstan to train and the likes of Bajrang Punia and Sushil Kumar opted to train in Russia, Vinesh chose a different path. She stayed back in the country at the Pratap Sports School in Kharkhoda, Sonepat to train with the male wrestlers and fine-tune her techniques. Along with her Hungarian coach Woller Akos and husband Somvir Rathee, she chose to train four days a week with the male wrestlers of the centre and even fought them in several practice bouts. She fought some five to six bouts every day to get the actual feel of the competition. Vinesh has taken the give-it-all approach to win her maiden silverware at the World Championship.
So far Indian women have won only four medals at the World Championships since it was introduced in 1987. It was Alka Tomar who clinched a 59kg bronze in 2006, followed by Geeta and Babita Phogat bagging bronze medals in 55kg and 51kg, respectively in 2012. Last year, Pooja Dhanda won a bronze in the 57kg category.
After losing her father at an early age, Vinesh came under the strong tutelage of her uncle Mahavir Singh Phogat, an amateur wrestler. Under his aegis, along with her cousins Geeta and Babita, Vinesh developed her skills and received full support from the family.
At 19, Vinesh started conquering some big stages. In 2013, she won a bronze in the women’s freestyle 52kg category at Asian Wrestling Championships in 2013. The big haul came at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow where she won her maiden gold medal in the 48 kg category. She also bagged the bronze medal at the Asian Games in Incheon the same year. Her performance rose the next level in 2018 when she bagged gold as the Commonwealth and Asian Games as well – the first Indian female wrestler to attain this feat.
However, disappointment struck at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Vinesh, who went as a medal prospect in the 48 kg category, had to be sidelined in the quarterfinal owing to a knee injury. After dominating Emilia Alina Vuc of Romania 11-0 in the pre-quarterfinals and leading 1-0 in the quarterfinal against China’s Sun Yanan, Vinesh lost grip while attempting a move and injured herself.
Fuelled by a successful 2018, Vinesh decided to move up to the 53 kg weight category from her preferred 50 kg from the Dan Kolov tournament in Bulgaria with an aim to lower the risk of injuries and remain in wrestling for a longer period. This shift worked wonders for the ace grappler; she won the gold medal at Spain Grand Prix and Yasar Dogu while she finished with a silver medal at Dan Kolov tournament. She won a bronze medal at the Asian Championships but won a silver at the Medved International.
The grappler, who is at the pinnacle of her form, will be vying for a podium finish at the World Championships. Her biggest challenge will be Japan’s Muya Mukaida, the 2018 world champion in 55 kg. Vinesh had lost to her at the Asian Championships earlier this year. The Indian wrestler should gain confidence from her wins this year against Qianyu Pang of China who is seeded second, Sofia Mattsson of Sweden, Sarah Hilderbat of USA the number 1 seed in the weight category.
Vinesh has prepared well for her bouts at the upcoming World Championship where she would be hunting for her maiden glory this year.