As soon as the announcer called her name, Vinesh Phogat quickly jumped on the mat to take her position to wrestle. Her opponent did the same from the other end. However, the duo were asked to step off the mat as the organisers waited for the arrival of the chief guest. After a delay of 10 minutes, the two wrestlers were finally called back for the bout to begin.
As soon as the referee blew the whistle, Vinesh attacked her opponent’s leg. It seemed as if she had it all planned in her head and was simply waiting for the bout to begin. Remarkably, just after 48 seconds, the referee raised Vinesh’s hand to declare her as the winner. Interestingly, she showed no emotions as she went back to her seat, put her headphones on and closed her eyes.
It took Vinesh Phogat seven months to return to competitive wrestling after suffering a heartbreaking injury at the Rio Olympics last year. However, the lay-off period has now made her a stronger and smarter human being as all she wanted to do was return to wrestling.
“Certainly I missed wrestling. I don’t know anything else. All these months I was just dreaming when I will do it again,” she said, while warming up for her second bout of the day at the Bharat Kesari Dangal. The tournament which is being played in Ambala has a collective prize money of Rs 1 crore .
The 22-year-old’s second bout was once again a similar affair. Wrestling in the 53kg weight category than her original 48kg, Vinesh astoundingly took 30 more seconds (than her previous bout) to beat the opponent from Punjab. This time after her comprehensive win she went and sat down with the other wrestlers, including her cousins Ritu and Sangeeta. She was seen joking around with the junior wrestlers and even helped them warm-up.
“It was hard for me to accept my fate in Rio. It took me some time to recover from that and at the end of September last year, I decided to move on. I went to a rehab in Bangalore and decided that I have to be better than I was before,” she says.
After the surgery on her right leg, Vinesh took a call that instead of going home and taking rest it was better to stay in Bangalore and recuperate. However, this was against the wishes of her family but she stayed firm on her decision.
“You know how difficult is to persuade a family to let you go after such an injury. But I had to and when I reached Bangalore, I knew I had made the right decision,” she recalled.
At the JSW training centre, Vinesh worked her way back to fitness with strength and conditioning coach Wayne Lombard. For the past four months, Vinesh has been taking briefings from Lombard about her gym sessions everyday. Following each instruction with utmost dedication, Vinesh focused on her muscle-building and ways to increase her power. All this while, a close tab was also kept on her knee so that it was not affected.
“It would have taken around seven-eight months to return from the injury but due to my strong muscles I made it back early. Every time I think about a training session, I call the coach for advice. But slowly, I hit the mat and then allowed the knee to recover.” she said and added, “I am not saying that I am fully fit but it is enough to compete. At the top level, may be not.”
When Vinesh finally returned to the national camp in Lucknow in February, national coach Kuldeep Malik was surprised to see her.
“I wasn’t expecting her to practice her moves so quickly and efficiently. Though we took care of her knee, it never looked like she had such a big injury,” says Malik, who was present on mat side when she got injured.
However, a problem arose when Vinesh decided to lose weight. Originally, the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold-medallist wrestles in the 48kg. But since her return, losing weight would have raised the risk of weakening the knee, as the muscles would have lost strength.
“My coach and the team decided the until I fully recover, I will wrestle at 53kg. So now I cannot lose weight. I will wrestle at the Asian Championships in May at the same weight. But later on, for Asiad and CWG, I’ll be back at 48kg,” she explained.
Meanwhile, after coming back to wrestling after a long lay-off, the multiple time national champion knows that her opponents know about her injury and may attack her injured leg.
“I know how it works. I study them, they study me but I am not wrestling with an injury. The knee may be slightly week but not injured. It won’t be a problem,” she says.
But Vinesh points out to one problem she has been facing for long and that is the lack of substantial competition. The absence of competition (mat) in her category has left her grappling with the same wrestlers for quite sometime now. After the selection trails for Asian Championships later this month, she will be a part of the camp in Bulgaria. But Vinesh maintains that to attain top-level, one needs more competition at the national level.
“In camps, you only get better at your skills. You can practice but there are no bouts in which you grapple like the international tournaments. How many times do I have to beat the same girl to be national champion?” she asked.
But for now she is in Ambala, competing for a prize money of Rs 10 lakh (individual) with the girls she has beaten multiple times in her career. When asked if she is confident to win the prize money?
“It will feel great but who knows. I just began my wrestling career four months back and tomorrow is a new day,” says Vinesh, putting her headphones back on before closing her eyes.