It’s a crisp, threatening-to-be-wintry-but-not-quite-that evening in Monaco. Vinesh Phogat has made her way to an arena dripping with sporting royalty for the annual Laureus Awards, a night that has come to be known as the “Sporting Oscars.”
She’s chosen traditional Indian attire for the night, a striking black lehenga that immediately sets her apart from the rest of the crowd. She takes her designated seat at the front end of the arena – Novak Djokovic is in the vicinity, Arsene Wenger isn’t far away and look there’s Missy Franklin, who’s won a small matter of five Olympic Swimming Gold medals.
Vinesh is one of six athletes in contention for the World Comeback of the Year award. Her competition:
Japanese Figure Skater Yuzuru Hanyu, who won gold at the Winter Olympics despite being unable to practice until three weeks before the games because of an ankle ligament injury.
Canadian Snowboarder Mark McMorris, who won a bronze at the Winter Olympics not long after breaking his jaw & his left arm besides rupturing his spleen, suffering a pelvic fracture, rib fracture and a collapsed left lung.
Dutch Snowboarder Bibian Mentel-Spee, who won two gold medals at the Winter Paralympics not long after the C6 vertebrae in her neck were removed and replaced with a titanium construction because of cancer.
American Skiing Legend Lindsey Vonn, who won bronze at the Winter Olympics not long after breaking her right arm and then suffering a back injury.
And an American golfer who goes by the name Tiger Woods, who won an 80th title on the PGA tour, his first since 2013, after undergoing spinal fusion surgery that kept him out of competition for a year.
“I was reading their stories,” Vinesh says of her competitors. “I don’t feel like I have accomplished as much as people are making it out to be. All of them have come through many difficulties, I guess people would have felt I too came through similar challenges.”
She bawled in agony on that wretched Rio day. Stretchered off with a broken knee that mangled not just hopes of a medal, but appeared to have destroyed a promising career in the bud. That night, Vinesh remembers crying tears of confusion and pain as her roommate and friend Sakshi Malik triumphantly celebrated a bronze medal. Vinesh has vivid memories of the exact setting - sitting on a wheelchair, waiting for an MRI scan to determine the extent of her injury, writhing in agony, staring at a TV set as Sakshi soaked in the accolades.
“I couldn’t quite figure why I was I crying – Was it because I was happy for Sakshi or because I was upset about my situation?”, she recalls. “Had I been playing I could have won a medal too. So, it was a difficult time in Rio, I couldn’t quite figure my emotional state out. I had come with some other purpose and am leaving like this, unsure about what the future had in store. I was blank, I knew I was alive, but not much more…”
In that roomful of sporting superstardom in Monaco, the throbbing applause reminded Vinesh of how alive she now is. Here she was - gold medallist at the Commonwealth Games and gold medallist at the Asian Games, both in 2018, restored to full health and competitive vigour. Here she was, among fellow conquerors of the longest odds, counted among those deserving to be applauded for making a “comeback”, that most easy to utter yet impossible to fathom process in sport.
“In Wresting, we are entirely dependent on our knees,” she asserts. “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’. 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.”
Repairing the malfunctioning body part was but “30%” of the battle. The other 70% came in convincing her mind of the light that waited at the end of the proverbial tunnel. In the immediate aftermath of the injury, her support staff attempted to assure Vinesh that the injury was “minor.” Vinesh knew her body was telling her otherwise. Once the surgeon’s knife had done its bit, Vinesh and a small and trusted group of accomplices, went about restoring her to full function.
The pre-injury Vinesh was convinced reaping rewards for hard work was a straight forward, almost transactional equation. Post-injury Vinesh has a more spiritual view, convinced destiny has a plan. It has led to a reset in ambitions, where the focus isn’t merely to win medals, but to fiercely seek out the toughest challenges that her profession of choice can hurl at her.
At the Asian Games, she was desperately keen to be drawn against China’s 2013 World Champion Sun Yanan, and once her wish was granted, went on to demolish her 8-2. The final against Japan’s Yuki Irie was another contest Vinesh was eager to throw herself into, emerging triumphant convincingly yet again. The quest is to match herself “against the best”, trusting her training, skill and technique to deliver the outcome. In a little over a year in Tokyo, Vinesh will line up alongside the very best to take another shot at what that Rio day snatched away. She will be 25.
“I think it was important for that injury to happen to me,” she says. “I have seen myself change, my game change…all this, that is happening.”
Just for the record, she didn’t win the comeback of the year of the award. It went to that Tiger Woods fellow. Vinesh Phogat though, didn’t stop smiling through the ceremony as winners went up to collect their trophies. From that musty, rotten day in Rio to this crisp, threatening-to-be-wintry-but-not-quite-that evening in Monaco, she had come a long way indeed.
((The writer was in Monaco in the invitation of the Laureus Awards))