Having the more famous Geeta and Babita as her cousins was never a hurdle for Vinesh Phogat. She in fact wasted no time in forging an identity for herself. After winning the bronze medal at the 2013 Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi, Vinesh won gold at two consecutive Commonwealth Games (2014 &2014), albeit in different weight categories. But it’s the time in between that was as challenging as any tough bout for the Haryana grappler. It’s made her tougher and better, as she looks ahead to improving the colour of her medal from the last Asian Games.
“I have started understanding wrestling in general, as well as my opponents, a lot better,” says Vinesh. “I wouldn’t want to restrict myself to just bronze this time around.”
The Rio Olympics in 2016 were a case of ‘what could have been’ for Vinesh. She was wrestling well in the build up to her quarter-final clash with China’s Sun Yanan in the women’s freestyle 48 kg quarter final, but a freak knee injury brought an end to her Olympic dream.
A lengthy process of recovery followed, and Vinesh was determined to return to competitive wrestling, hungrier than ever. An early exit from the World Wrestling Championship in 2017 could have deflated her will, but instead, Vinesh spurred herself on and won the silver at the Asian Wrestling Championship in February 2018, followed by the Commonwealth Games gold in Gold Coast.
“That gold boosted my confidence a lot,” she says. “I started to believe that my preparations were going well. Then I travelled to Spain and gave my best there, exhibited all that I had practiced on the mat. So my confidence definitely is quite high at the moment, and I am taking that confidence into the Asian Games, and I hope to give my best over there, and that results will also be.”
The Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang will pose its own set of challenges for the 23 year old who will be fighting in the 50 kg category. The field is a strong one, consisting of world and Olympic champions. When asked about the competition that she expects at the games, she said, “Every match is going to be tough, so my focus will be on giving my best in every single match. It’s not as if my focus is on a single country. I have my focus on every opponent.”
If Vinesh is to improve on her performance of a bronze medal finish from Incheon 2014, she will have to deal with pressure and expectations. Skill and talent aside, it is how an athlete deals with these two factors that can decide the difference between victory and defeat. Vinesh is embracing it.
“Seeing people invest their faith in me automatically boosts my confidence, making me believe that I have the talent. I try to bring out that talent in training, and then eventually during the match,” she says.
Indian wrestlers had won five out of the 57 medals in Incheon, with Yogeshwar Dutt the only one to bag the yellow metal.