What comes undone at Olympics can only be fixed at the next Olympics. Whether you are two-time medallist Sushil Kumar, or a many-time wounded Vinesh Phogat.
Still, Vinesh Phogat is grateful for the bunch of ligaments in her knee that snapped so bad at the Rio Games that it turned her life inside out. Her very public and very traumatic injury, when Chinese Yanan Sun pounced on Phogat’s risky move, blocked her ankle and smothered the knee into limp submission, suddenly made August 2018 terribly important.
“Asian Games is like Olympics Part 2 for me. The Chinese will be there again. And Japanese world champion Yuki Irei too,” she had said before heading out to Jakarta.
On Saturday, eve of the Asian Games opening, women’s coach Kuldeep Malik would sit Vinesh down and purge her mind off memories of that Rio noon. “I told her it’s in the past. This is a new competition,” he’d say. A Kazakh and a Mongolian will also be in the mix, and there are strains of a redemption song for Vinesh in Jakarta.
While on redemption, Sushil Kumar finds himself tangled in a web on the draw for his Sunday Slam – Adam Batirov of Brunei to start, and then a potential bloodbath with Japanese / Chinese / Mongolian to hurdle over, even before he wrestles Iranian Mostafa Hosseinkhani — a 70kg World’s bronze medallist who has moved upto 74kg for the Asiad. In the quarters. Should he rescue himself out of this minefield, he would do real justice to a term he made famous in India. This could well be the repechage of Sushil’s life. But for the other Rio-tragedy, Vinesh, Jakarta has been nothing less than a reboot of life.
“Injuries break you completely as a person, and then they teach you everything. I was never very disciplined or liked following rules. Post-operation I was still aggressive. But I changed slowly. Started paying attention to nutrition, slept on time. Earlier I used to be so confident — agar practice kiya hai toh kya khana, kya sona? I’d think,” she recalls.
Humility can be a missing piece from a wrestler’s arsenal. Vinesh reckons her single-minded desperation of the Rio medal, could have done with this tempering. “Last two years because of that injury, I’ve ended up doing things that I otherwise never would. Started wearing earrings, using make-up, watching movies and going out. I’d shop and click photos. I even tried my hand at painting. I’d wake up everyday and think – aaj kuchh naya karte hai,” she recalls of the forced break.
Anger and frustration
She’d be in contact only with 5-6 people in that period, not return home because she detested the pitying looks that could mean “bechari Vinesh”, stewed when other wrestlers would get ready to fly off to tournaments abroad and return with medals, and fume when she wasn’t a part of the league. “In the beginning I couldn’t tell if it was day or night, I was that depressed. There was anger and frustration which I would try to hide, because I felt emotionally weak. It’s important to rein in the aggression and anger in such times when your body is helpless,” she would say. Patching herself back meant focussing on basics.
“First you realise how important your hands and legs are because you can’t feel them — out of shock and trauma. Slowly in a few months you resist and then start learning. I would eat and sleep systematically knowing every bite was part of my return, every hour in rest was healing my body back,” she’d recall.
The very public stretchering off at Rio — she’d seen as a “moment of weakness witnessed by all of India.” After she checked in for surgery, the next day Saina Nehwal would come to the same hospital for a post-surgery check-up. “She came to my room and told me how both of us had gone through the same thing. She said, ‘tujhe bhi injury hui, mujhe bhi. Lekin bhagwaan humaare saath hai. Kuchh bhi ho, waapas aana hai.’ Those were a lot of positive vibes, though we both knew it’ll be tough,” she says. The two would storm towards the gettable CWG golds, but it’s at the Asiad that the full Olympian might of expectations will fall on her again.
She has been training in Hungary under Woller Akos, whose wife is a world championship medallist. The 23-year-old has been wanting to train under him for a long time and the month-long stint has been helpful.
The silver at the Asian Championship last year and the CWG brought back the glaring spotlight — Vinesh enjoyed rather than dreaded.
“I got the sense that people were forgetting me. Media mein koi naam nai le raha tha. Do din pehle tak sab baat kar rahe the, now they were ignoring me. Do kadam peechhe hat jaate the. I’d think sab finish ho gaya. After CWG I was back,” she adds. “Sport is like that – up bhi jaata hai, down bhi.”
Multiple ligamentary reconstructions attract opponents to the knee, like a bullet chases crosshairs. “In the trials every girl tried attacking my knee. I was like Jhansi ki rani: Main apni zhansi kabhi nai doongi. I would say: Kuchh bhi ho, yeh paer nahi dena hai,” she laughs.
Noone is expected to show mercy in wrestling, she says two years after Rio. “If my opponent had had this injury, I’d also have attacked her knee. I didn’t expect anyone to go easy.”
Was she angry with the Chinese? “Bilkul gussa nahi kiya. She did nothing illegal. She tried, I tried. Injury jab honi hoti hai, ho jaati hai,” she rationalised.
Fears of a recurrence are behind her – but not without a fair share of nightmares. “When I returned to the national camp, the first day I thought knee chala jaega. Even Asian championships I feared a repeat attack on the knee. There would be moments when I’d think I’ve forgotten my movements. Like muscles have lost memory overnight.”
At the Bulgaria training camp, the fear returned. “Laga knee khinch gaya. I didn’t sleep. I cried, and then iced it. Everyone was scared. I knew – darr nikaalna padega,” she says. Every match thereafter gave her confidence.
Vinesh Phogat has sat crossing out days after her surgeon said she needed 6 months to come back. “I wrote down the date in a book, and would cross out dates everyday, believing Sir ne bola hai.”
While Sushil Kumar goes reclaiming his glory on Sunday, there’s Vinesh Phogat who will spend the day, knowing the worst is far behind her. At least two years back in the past.
Others Out to claim Success
While the likes of Neeraj Chopra, Bajrang Punia, India’s hockey and kabaddi teams can assure you medals, there’s a few swing medals that could go this way or that — depending on one critical element in Jakarta.
He was on a roll in 2017 winning four Super Series titles, before he went off the boil. Indonesia’s fast courts are what suits him most. They don’t stop pointing out how there’s no Olympic or World’s medal in his kitty. An Asiad — as of 2018 — can make up for those.
His dismount is all-important if he wants to leave behind a string of 4th place finishes and do justice to the rest of his Rings routine. He’s picked a high-difficulty routine – nothing less will do in asia where the Japanese and Chinese are ace. But it can all come undone, with a botched landing. Experts reckon it’s the shortage of endurance that has deprived him of a strong dismount after the long, punishing routine. But the man with the strong upper-body action, will hope his feet can stick the landing.
The Kerala long-jumper has a personal best of 7.99. Then appendicitis struck before CWG. He has a very good chance of a medal if he can match his season’s best – sadly that was in March.
The World Championship silver medallist in boxing was not at Gold Coast. Sufficiently hungry for a medal now, the 57 kg pugilist has studied opponents minutely here. Marykom’s successor is awaited, and Jakarta could be where the baton is passed.
India’s best bet in 10m air rifle, the earnest Ravi Kumar, has a tough fight on his hands. India’s most consistent shooter at the highest World Cup level in the last one year, he’s not shot less than 629 in training in the last two years. Mentored by Abhinav Bindra, the million-dollar puzzle for him to crack is how to ace the finals.
He’s been there and thereabouts and out of confidence, since the Asian Championship gold in 2015. He’s an upper body grappler – a standing wrestler so to say, with his famous arm-drags. Now he needs to show he’s as good when things go south – when he’s dragged down to the ground.