Asian Games 2018: Gold medallist Vinesh Phogat, a braveheart in and out of the wrestling ring, shines in Jakarta

Vinesh Phogat has that unique ability to make you feel just the way she is feeling at any point of time. Her joy and pain are both infectious and we have experienced both of it, though two years apart.

She turns 24 this Saturday, but she has given herself an early birthday gift in the form of an Asian Games gold. It is a medal that has permanently etched her name in the record books as the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Asian Games.

Vines Vinesh of India, top, reacts after beating Yuki Irie of Japan, during woman's freestyle 50 kg wrestling competition at the 18th Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia, Monday, Aug. 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Firdia Lisnawati)

Vinesh Phogat celebrates after beating Yuki Irie. AP/Firdia Lisnawati

Vinesh had Aamir Khan congratulating her. She had Neeraj Chopra, the Indian javelin hope and flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony, rooting for her at the Stadium.

It was an almost childlike Vinesh who said, "I have had too many silver medals. It was silver, silver, silver… (and yes a fair number of bronze, too) but now I wanted a gold."

She alone knows what was going on in her mind in the morning, when she was walking towards the mat to face Sun Yanan. She has lost to Sun every time she has faced her so far. The loss that stood out for her and caused her immense pain was the one in the Rio Olympics in 2016. The fight was still on when she suddenly felt Sun's head crash into her abdominal region and she collapsed almost in a heap. Motionless for a while, she was soon writhing with pain. It was a sight that could hardly be forgotten. Surely, the painful experience must have been etched on Vinesh's mind just as it has been on all of us who were there that day in Rio.

Her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) was torn and she was stretchered out. She was sobbing, not because of the pain, but because of the medal she felt she had left out there on the mat. That was on 17 August 2016. She was out of action until January 2017.

Four months is a long time, may be close to an eternity, especially while wanting to be sure whether or not you would be able to pursue what you love most. Since the day she started wrestling at the age of seven, introduced into the sport by an indulgent uncle, Mahavir Phogat, Vinesh had never been away from the sport for this long.

Slowly but steadily she took baby steps back and not before long, she was looking for medals. She had a gold in Commonwealth Games in 2014 and a bronze at the Asian Games same year.

Then came the Olympics in Rio. No Indian woman had won a wrestling gold at the Olympics till then. Instead of a medal, she was off to a hospital for treatment and rehabilitation afterwards.

Her friend, Sakshi Malik became the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal – and it came on the same day when Vinesh had been injured.

Four months of brooding and staying away from what you love most would have broken most but not Vinesh.

She came back four months later and started picking medals here and there. The comeback was on track, as she won the Commonwealth Games gold in Gold Coast this April. Next on the list was the Asian Games in Jakarta. No Indian woman wrestler had won a gold at Asian Games.

Trashing bad memories of Rio into a bin along the way to the mat this morning, Vinesh took on Sun. It was a close fight but Vinesh won and the wall had been scaled. She has finally beaten Sun and with it, the memories of that fateful day in Rio, too, has been banished.

She won the next two fights in a canter. She beat 34-year-old Korean, Kim Hyung-joo, with a 11-0 win by technical superiority. That was followed by another solid performance in a 10-0 win by technical superiority over Uzbek, Dauletbike Yakshimuratova.

In the final, Vinesh beat Yuki Irie on points. The Indian was 4-0 up in the first period, but the Japanese gave it all in the second only to lose 2-6. The goal was to win gold and it is now hers.

There were periods during her rehab and recovery when Vinesh was unsure whether she would come back to wrestling. Steeling her body, just as she had steeled up her mind, she focused on her return. That come back seemed complete at Gold Coast, where she won a gold.

Silver and bronze had been part of her life at the Asian Championships for six years – from 2013 to 2018. She badly needed a gold beyond Commonwealth Games.

"Injuries are part of an athlete’s career. I shrugged off everything to deliver some good medals recently, but I wanted a gold. I had targeted gold. I had 3-4 silvers (3 silver and 3 bronze at Asian Championships in last six editions). So, I was determined to win a gold today. My body responded well," said Vinesh.

When Vinesh was out of action in late 2016, it gave her a lot of time to introspect. It was during this period, she put out a lot of her thoughts on her social media pages. Among the things she wrote was, "These 120 days have perhaps been the toughest days of my life."

But what was even more poignant was her description of herself: "Wrestling is something that defines me, makes me the person I am and is something that is my biggest passion." Vinesh is indeed a champion, in and out of the ring.


Updated Date: Aug 21, 2018 13:12 PM

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