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Home Wrestling EXCLUSIVE: Somvir keeps track of my opponents better than me — Vinesh...

EXCLUSIVE: Somvir keeps track of my opponents better than me — Vinesh Phogat

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It’s been little more than nine months that India’s best-known women wrestler Vinesh Phogat got married to national-level wrestler Somvir Rathee – her prowess on the wrestling mat was of course never in doubt (having clinched gold medals at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and 2018 Asian Games), but life after marriage has been a highly exciting one as she has really scaled up the ‘success quotient’, contriving a podium finish in as many as six international tournaments this year, including the big one – bronze at the World Wrestling Championship in Kazakhstan.

Vinesh kickstarted the year garnering a silver medal at the Dan Kolov-Nikola Petrov tournament in Bulgaria – she subsequently followed it up with a bronze-medal finish at the Asian Wrestling Championship in China. She subsequently got into a gold-winning streak completing a hat-trick of crowns at the Poland Open, Spanish Grand Prix and Yasar Dogu International in Turkey – Vinesh also capped off a silver medal finish at the Medved Tournament in Belarus.

Vinesh Phogat at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships
Vinesh Phogat at the 2019 World Wrestling Championships

So how has Vinesh juggled her wrestling aspirations with her less than one-year-old married life? “Both of us are different personalities. Somvir prefers to be in his own space and does not like to talk to the media – he is very much an active wrestler and is preparing for the upcoming Senior Nationals. Somvir loves to go about his wrestling training daily, have his food and retire for the day,” says Vinesh bubbling with enthusiasm.

The 25-year-old female grappler, who belongs to the Haryana’s famous Mahavir Singh Phogat family that churned out the likes of Geeta Phogat (who became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a World Championship medal – a bronze in 2012) and Babita Kumari (who also won a bronze in the 2012 World Championship), got married to Somvir in December last year, after a highly ‘romantic’ engagement ceremony at the Delhi airport on return from her gold-winning 2018 Asian Games campaign.

“To be honest, I did not have any clue about us getting engaged at the Delhi airport after our return from Indonesia. It was only in the flight that Somvir told me that both us would exchange rings outside the arrival gates of the Delhi airport. I was initially taken aback, but yes, the whole engagement thing was never planned and was a kind of a pleasant surprise from Somvir,” quips Vinesh barely able to hide her excitement.

Vinesh and Somvir on their wedding day
Vinesh and Somvir on their wedding day

Prod her on how the love blossomed between the two, Vinesh refrains from revealing much. “I know him since 2009, but I can’t tell you when exactly we got dating. Both of us work at Railways,” she offers what in cricketing parlance will be a straight bat.

But Somvir is the pillar of support as far as Vinesh’s wrestling career is concerned. Vinesh lavishes praise on her husband:

He does everything to ensure I keep performing consistently for my country. He watches videos of all my opponents and offers necessary pointers before a tournament or a bout. When I was wrestling in the 48-kg category, he used to know the names of all my opponents and their way of wrestling. Even in my current 53-kg weight class, Somvir knows the names of all my opponents probably more than I know. His inputs always help me a lot to prepare better.

Now the medal-winning responsibility at the World Championship over, Vinesh is channelising her energies on making a big statement at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – a marquee event where she was stretchered off after sustaining a knee dislocation during her quarterfinal bout four years back in Rio. Vinesh exuding a feeling of how she has matured as a wrestler:

I think I took a lot of pressure upon myself at the Rio Olympics and learnt from that experience. I’m now looking to enjoy my wrestling and let the results take care of themselves in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. I will focus on devising different strategies for each opponent – like I adopt different strategies for European and Asian grapplers. I used to attack from the beginning, but now my defence is strong and I know how to pace myself so that I can sustain the six-minute bout.

Vinesh and Somvir at Laureus Sports Awards Ceremony 2019
Vinesh and Somvir at Laureus Sports Awards Ceremony 2019

The confabulation veered towards the importance of learning from each bout. “You never stop learning – I make mistakes even when I win bouts, and it is important that I fix them because your opponent will be watching the videos of the bouts and look to catch me on the wrong foot the next time we face-off,” she offers a thought-provoking perspective.

Indian wrestling has seen a lot of ‘come-from-behind wins’ over the years – the most prominent being the country’s top men’s wrestler Bajrang Punia who seems to be getting into a habit of making stunning come-from-behind wins. So what are Vinesh’s thoughts on the same? “My job is to avoid a scenario where I have to stage a come-from-behind win – the point is why will I take unwanted stress of winning in the closing seconds. Having said that, no wrestler plans to wins in final seconds because there are times when you are up against formidable opponents you tend to concede points early on and then things can get tough,” she reckons.

Vinesh Phogat after winning the bronze medal at World Wrestling Championship 2019
Vinesh Phogat after winning the bronze medal at World Wrestling Championship 2019

The shift to 53-kg category earlier this year has been closely followed by Indian wrestling fans, and Vinesh appears to undergo a smooth transition to the new weight class. Vinesh says:

I was not sure if shifting to 53-kg was a good move or was it was a mistake on her part. But with the World Championship bronze medal, I feel that I belong to this weight category. Of course, as you could see at the World Championship every opponent is going to be a tough nut to crack at the Tokyo Olympics and I will have to gird my loins for the big-ticket event.

The success of Vinesh should be attributed in some way to her Hungarian personal coach Woller Akos. “I share a great connect with Woller Akos – he is very strict and wants me to keep raising the performance bar. He seemed to be much happier at Nur-Sultan than I was when I won the World Championship bronze medal. He wants me to do well at the Tokyo Olympics and is planning things for me,” says the grappler who has nothing but respect for her coach.

Representing the country is a tough job as extreme care has to be taken of one’s diet, but she is candid enough to admit that she has a sweet tooth. “I love sweets and if someone tells me this sweet is good, I will go for it,” concludes the grappler who is taking a much-deserved three-week rest, which will hopefully help her recharge her batteries ahead of a crucial Olympic year.

Suhrid Barua
Suhrid Barua
Hailing from Guwahati in the North-Eastern part of the country, and based in New Delhi, Suhrid Barua has an unbridled passion for sports writing (be it any sports discipline) - he has worked for various media houses (print and online). Sports writing for him is like gulping down a bar of chocolate.
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