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Wrestler Vinesh Phogat says remaining injury-free is the biggest challenge for her ahead of Tokyo Olympics

Bhubaneshwar: The image of a tearful Vinesh Phogat writhing on the mat has left an indelible mark on those who watched her 48kg quarter-final bout at the Rio Olympics in 2016. Sakshi Malik would later become the first woman wrestler from the country to win an Olympic medal, but the enduring image from the Carioca Arena remains that of India's genuine medal prospect being stretched out with a strapped knee.

Two years is a long time in international sport. Vinesh surely has moved on from that fateful bout against China's Yanan Sun, but the scars have given her a larger perspective in life. She no longer gets flustered with injuries and even laughs off niggles with the all-knowing scorn.

 Wrestler Vinesh Phogat says remaining injury-free is the biggest challenge for her ahead of Tokyo Olympics

File image of Vinesh Phogat. Image courtesy: Twitter @Phogat_Vinesh

"That injury taught me a lot. The comeback was not easy, but once I did return, I realised it has only made me stronger. Now, even if I get injured, I simply smile and tell myself that I have seen worse days. These things don't affect me," she said.

Injuries are part of elite wrestling and Vinesh's focus in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 is to devise ways to avoid them.

"Yes, to remain injury-free will be my biggest challenge. It's difficult because wrestling is a sport where you can pick an injury anytime. You prepare well all year, but suddenly one injury pops up and ends everything. I will sit with my coach and we will prepare a strategy to minimise the chances of catching a niggle or an injury. I have missed some major events to injuries, and the feeling is not good. If you go out after losing a bout, it's a different matter, but losing to injuries hurts you," she told Firstpost at the recently-concluded Ekamra Sports Literary Festival here.

Post her Rio disaster, Vinesh completed a golden double at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games earlier this year and was billed as a medal prospect at the World Championships in Budapest. She, however, couldn't make it to the competition owing to a torn ligament in her elbow, an injury she sustained at the national camp in Lucknow less than a month before the event.

"At times, it is tough to believe that injury has ended your chances. Sometimes, I get angry at myself for not being able to prevent one, but as I said, I play a sport where such things are just round the corner," she added, reflecting on her unfortunate knack to pick injuries.

The Haryana wrestler insists there's nothing amiss in her training methods, but pointed out that a better weight management may reduce risks. Vinesh's average bodyweight is 55-56kgs, and she has to shed the extra kilos to be eligible to compete in the 50kg category.

“The problem, I think, is that I have to constantly lose weight to fit in the 50kg category. This season, I lost weight for the Pro Wrestling League, Asian Championships, for a tournament in Spain, and then for Commonwealth Games, so I think that could be a reason for my injuries.

"The norm in our country is to suddenly bring the weight down ahead of tournaments. I am looking forward to keep my weight to 51-52 kgs. That way, I won't have to lose much ahead of competitions and that will prevent injuries. I am working towards weight and injury management with my Hungarian coach," she explained.

While losing an average of 5-6kgs before an event is demanding, the ace wrestler does have a choice to step up to 53kg category. Vinesh, however, doesn't want to fiddle with her weight class before the Olympics.

"The thought of shifting to 53 kg category has occurred to me, but I will not take that risk ahead of the Olympics. I am aware of the strength and weaknesses of all my competitors in my weight category. I won't have the same belief and confidence in the new weight class. But yes, after the 2020 Olympics, I will certainly look to move to the higher weight category.

Apart from injury and weight management, another area that the 24-year-old is working on is her speed. Since her height prevents her to go low in her stance, speed becomes paramount for her, more so in a category where wrestlers are at their fastest.

"I compete in the lowest weight category, so speed is very important for me and I am constantly working to get faster on the mat. Also, I am a bit tall (for my weight category), so unlike some of the Japanese wrestlers who really go very low, I have to rely on my speed and upper body strength. I have to find a way to work around these things and prepare a strategy to not let my height affect my defence or speed.

"My next targets are the Asian and World Championships, and if I do well in these events, it will give me great mileage going into the Olympic year," she concluded.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2018 18:18:44 IST