Vinesh Phogat: 'Whatever I am today, it’s because of past setbacks like Rio Olympics in 2016'

On being asked how the Vinesh of 2021 is different from the Vinesh of 2016, she said: “Back then I used to emotionally break down very easily. Even if I injured a finger, I would ask ‘why me?’'

Amit Kamath April 24, 2021 09:09:00 IST
Vinesh Phogat: 'Whatever I am today, it’s because of past setbacks like Rio Olympics in 2016'

File image of India's Vinesh Phogat competing at the World Wrestling Championship 2019 where she sealed her quota for the Tokyo Olympics. Image courtesy: Wrestling Federation if India.

The ghost of Rio Olympics does not haunt the attic of Vinesh Phogat’s mind. Not anymore. Phogat was a medal contender in what was her first Olympics in the Brazilian capital but a freak injury against China’s Sun Yanan in the 48kg quarter-final cut short her tournament.

Some scars on the psyche remain much longer after the injuries on the body have healed.

“There used to be this fear (in my mind): What if I make it to another Olympics and I again get injured. But not anymore. I am mentally ready for anything now. Now that setback in Rio has started to feel like unfinished business,” Vinesh told journalists on Friday in an interaction facilitated by Sports Authority of India.

On being asked how the Vinesh of 2021 is different from the Vinesh of 2016, she said: “The Vinesh of 2016 used to emotionally break down very easily. Even if I injured a finger, I would ask ‘why me?’ But now I feel I’ve matured a lot. It’s because of this I was able to mentally deal with contracting COVID-19 last year.

“Back then if I lost a bout, my first reaction would be to think ‘how could I lose’. It would take me time to come to terms with defeat. But now there is an acceptance that I lost because there are still flaws to be worked out in my game.

“I think I’ve also gotten a better handle on my temper now,” said the 26-year-old.

Vinesh doesn’t ask herself ‘why me’ anymore. While everyone remembers the heartbreak of Rio 2016, Vinesh also missed out on competing at the 2018 World Championships after injuring her elbow in training. Then last year as she was preparing for Tokyo 2020, she contracted COVID-19.

“Earlier I used to think a lot about why this was happening to me. After Rio especially, I used to think that a lot. But once I returned on the mat after the injury and wins started coming, I realised why it had happened to me. The universe gives you such setbacks because it wants you to become stronger. If you need to grow as a human and as an athlete, these ups and downs are essential. Whatever I am today, is because of those past setbacks.”

Blood pressure issues

Vinesh switched to the 53kg weight class from 50kg in 2019 with an eye on Tokyo Olympics. The 50kg weight class is a category with speedier grapplers, which meant Vinesh would also have to put more emphasis on her speed and reaction time.

On being asked how moving up a category had benefitted her, she chuckled: “Khaana pet bhar ke kha leti hoon (I can enjoy a full meal now).”

Jokes aside, the switch has not been as smooth as she would have hoped, with the grappler encountering blood pressure issues.

“I have been struggling with low BP since I changed weight classes. Sometimes my BP plummets during the competition and, as a result, I can’t see my opponents’ move clearly. So, I have to always keep my BP monitored. When salt intake goes down, I feel dizziness. During the first two tournaments of the year, I didn’t feel too much of an effect. But it was very noticeable at the Asian Championships.”

Vinesh said that because of this she was struggling to recover in early bouts after having to reduce her weight to make the cut at weigh-ins. After last competing at the 2020 Asian Championships in New Delhi, Vinesh returned to the mat a whole year later in Kiev in February this year. Despite her blood pressure struggles, she has won gold at all three events she wrestled in: XXIV Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial in Kiev, Rome’s Matteo Pellicone and the Asian Championships at Almaty.

Changed mentality

There was a time when Vinesh used to think that only wrestlers who were afraid would scout their opponents when they competed.

But ever since her personal coach Waller Akos came on board, that mentality has changed.

“Now we like to observe our opponents as much as possible. Earlier, I would observe just a handful of top grapplers. But now I have started watching bouts of every wrestler in my weight class.”

That’s not the only change Akos has made in Vinesh.

“Earlier I used to attack a lot irrespective of the situation. That would lead to a lot of mistakes. After Waller came on board, he taught me to time my attacks. He taught me how to read my opponents.

“I also started to use my arms more, and wrestle with the motion. There is of course still a lot of scope for improvement. Earlier, I was always in a hurry in bouts. But now when I see my own bouts, I can see the difference. It looks smooth,” she said.

Uncertainty over Tokyo 2020

Vinesh admitted that last year when the pandemic was forcing lockdowns everywhere, there was a tinge of fear in her mind that Tokyo 2020—the competition she has been eyeing since the day she was injured at Rio 2016—would get cancelled.

“Now I feel what will happen even if the Tokyo Games are cancelled? It won’t be the end of wrestling,” said the 2018 Asian Games gold medallist who also has two Commonwealth Games golds.

With the Olympics on the horizon, expectations from Vinesh are starting to grow again.

“Earlier I used to think a lot about expectations people have from me and what they were saying about me. But after Rio, a lot has changed. I wrestle for myself. I want to wrestle because I enjoy it. But I don’t think about someone else’s expectations off me anymore. When I got injured at Rio, that time it felt like everyone had forgotten me. Tab samjha ki haar aur jeet do din ki hai. Shayad do din log yaad rakhe, aur phir bhool jaaye. Isiliye main khud ke liye wrestling karti hoon.”

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