Geeta Phogat may have won India’s first big international wrestling medal at the 2010 New Delhi Commonwealth Games followed by her younger sibling Babita, Sakshi Malik may have won that elusive medal at the biggest stage – Olympics, but ever since she won Gold at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, 2014, Vinesh has always been India’s best bet for a medal at any international wrestling tournament.
And come the Nur Sultan World Championships in a couple of days, the scenario is the same. The diminutive Indian continues to be India’s best bet for an Olympic berth and even a position on the podium.
The last 5 years have seen Vinesh fight across various weight categories ranging from 48kg at Glasgow, to 55 kg at the Asian Championships in 2017. Physical and strategic requirements coupled with the weight class changes imposed frequently by the World Federation have demanded the changes.
But Vinesh’s most successful weight category was 50kg maintained over 2018 as she won the Commonwealth and the Asian Games titles along with Bronze at the Asian Championships. Very importantly the formidable Japanese Yukie Irie was defeated at the Asian Championships and in the title match at the Asian Games.
The gut-wrenching image on that dark August day at the Rio Olympics where she had to be stretchered off the mat, wincing in pain, crying in disappointment in the quarter-finals against Sun Yanan seemed to be buried into the sands of time. Or so it seemed.
An elbow injury during training post-Asian games saw her miss out on the 2018 World Championships. Injuries close to the qualification phase of any Olympic cycle are dangerous (ask Neeraj Chopra), but a few months of rehab saw Phogat back on the mat albeit in a new weight category – 53kg.
The change in the rule that weigh-in should happen on the day of competition and not a day in advance, and the fact that her normal weight tends to be more than 50kg, have influenced the strategy to go up a weight category. As coach Kuldeep Malik says ” In a way, it has helped that she doesn’t need to expend her energy to shed her weight.”
The challenges that come with a heavier weight category in terms of power and speed seemed to have been dealt very well by Vinesh and her team.
The bronze at the Asian Championships this year has been followed by a triumvirate of Golds at Poland Open, Grand Prix of Spain and Yasar Dogu International at Istanbul before being completely outclassed by Malisheva of Russia in the final of the Medved event.
Some failures in between such a stunning golden run always serve to keep any athlete on their toes and that is exactly what Vinesh has been doing, learning and practising all the time.
Now armed with a personal coach Woller Akos from Hungary, Phogat has been sparring against male wrestlers and against Akos’s wife Marianna Sastin, a 62kg wrestler. Vinesh chose to train at Sonepat instead of leaving with the rest of the team for Kazakhstan.
‘ The best do things differently and smartly’.
The Indian’s big challenge comes from the American Hildebrandt, Chinese Quianyu Pang (defeated her at the Asians earlier this year), Sofia Mattson (defeated her in the quarters at Poland Open) , North Korean Ong Mi Pak and the big one Maya Mukaida.
A TOP SIX FINISH IS WELL WITHIN REACH.