From mangled to restored, the triumph of Vinesh Phogat at Tokyo Olympics
Sports may not have the perfect storylines, but Vinesh Phogat, by returning to the Olympics mat has won the battle of self-doubt and triumphed there.
Sakshi Malik was exhausted. It had been quite a day. Only a few hours had passed since she'd become the first Indian female wrestler in history to win an Olympic medal. Since that moment that broke India's wretched medal-less spell thus far at Rio, she had been in a whirlpool of activity. As the evening wore down, and interview after interview was completed, Sakshi wanted to be somewhere else. With her friend. Who lay in tears in a hospital bed, not far away. Knee mangled. Hopes crushed. Dreams dashed.
Sakshi and Vinesh had been together as juniors. They were sparring partners. They were friends. They'd often joke and laugh, teasing each other about who would return with a medal from competitions they went to. In Rio, they were roommates, scheduled to compete in their weight categories on the same day. Their friendship was perhaps destined to produce the perfect moment in their young lives. Two Olympics medals on the same day, wouldn't that be nice.
Fate though had a cruel twist planned. Against China's Sun Yanan, Vinesh crumbled in agony, stretchered off with a horrific knee injury. On a wheelchair, waiting for an MRI to determine the extent of the damage, she watched Sakshi in a haze of tears as she rose to the podium, even as her own future seemed desperately uncertain.
"This medal is for her," Sakshi told me on that Rio evening, medal around her neck, voice tinged with emotion. "She is my friend and my training partner, I have enjoyed practicing with her, she has very good technique and speed."
"Today when we left our rooms we said, kuch bhi jo jaaye (whatever happens), at least there's one medal here. I had a lot of hope in Vinesh, her medal was almost like a certainty for us all. I thought why has this happened, if Vinesh is not going to get a medal, then what's left."
On Friday, Vinesh, still all of 26, returned to the stage that she left five years ago in anguish. Restored to competitive fitness, and a medal contender in her weight category after a series of triumphs including Gold at the Asian and Commonwealth Games, she began with a facile victory over a hapless Swede. The march towards the glory Sakshi anticipated in Rio had begun in earnest at Tokyo.
Sport though doesn't always have perfect storylines. In her second encounter, against Vanesa Kaladzinskaya of Belarus, a surprisingly subdued Vinesh, her right knee heavily strapped, was comprehensively beaten. Kaladzinskaya was then waylaid by a late burst in her next round, extinguishing Vinesh's chance to sneak into bronze medal contention via the repechage.
So was this then a failure?
Here was an athlete that arrived in Tokyo ranked number one in her category. Since the tragedy of Rio, she'd won medals at multi-discipline Games, World Championships, Asian Championships and Ranking series events. She had trained in high-performance endurance camps in Bulgaria and built with precision and discipline towards this moment. Yet, it all came to nought in the space of those few moments.
Quite often, the lens we apply to athletic achievement is premised on statistical accomplishments. Sportspersons chase titles and rankings, it becomes the measure they expect to judge themselves by, and how the world at large judges them as well. It is a transactional arrangement that works quite well for both parties.
Athletes such as Vinesh Phogat though deserve deeper examination. To repair a damaged body part is easier, to convince a doubting mind is the sterner challenge. At the annual Laureus Sports Awards in Monaco in 2019, I sat down with Vinesh in an attempt to understand just how she had found the light after the darkness of that wretched Rio day. Her stunning feats upon return to competition had meant Vinesh was among those nominated for the Comeback of the Year award, alongside among others, a certain Tiger Woods (he would go on to win).
In a soft, impeccably polite tone, Vinesh broke down the process that began by her going under the surgeon's knife.
"In Wrestling, we are entirely dependent on our knees," she explained. "Everything has to be just right, from the surgery to the recovery. In bouts, the opponent targets your knee, you want to avoid that method of attack but the opponent is aware that is your weak spot, so is attacking you there."
"Those moments are scary, you keep thinking 'I hope I don't bust it again'," she added. "It took me 18 months to overcome the fear, I finally felt confident that I had made my knee strong enough that it won't give up on me."
My mind wandered back to that interaction as I saw Vinesh stumble in the arc-lights at Tokyo. Had she really failed? Or had she just stumbled at a significant pit-stop. On the mantle-piece at home, an Olympic medal will remain missing and perhaps in a few days, when the sting of defeat has worn off, Sakshi will call and tease her about it.
Perhaps her moment is gone too and this will remain an unaccomplished dream. When Paris arrives in three years from now, she will be nearing 30 and younger wrestlers are already snapping at her heels.
However, look closer and re-read her words. By stepping onto the mat itself in Tokyo, Vinesh was victorious. To understand her triumph is to attempt an understanding of the loneliness of its process. To be 21, crippled with anxiety, plunged in despair, knowing what was yours to chase had been so cruelly snatched and to then begin to return from that lowest of ebbs.
And then to be 26 and find yourself back. In that journey, you have overcome your doubting mind, reconstructed your broken body part and rebuilt your tattered spirit. Yes, your name isn't on the front pages and the accolades aren't flowing in, but Vinesh Phogat, you have won anyway. Like you told me that day in Monaco:
"I think it was important for that injury to happen to me. I have seen myself change."