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Monday, May 17, 2021

Unbeaten, untested: Vinesh wins Asian Championships gold, awaits clash with key rivals

Vinesh Phogat won gold without conceding a single point, becoming the new Asian champion in the 53kg weight category. In eight attempts, this was the first time Phogat won the gold medal (she has three silver and four bronze medals).

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: April 16, 2021 11:27:52 pm
Vinesh Phogat cruised to the title without losing a point in the 53kg category. (File)

By her own admission, Vinesh Phogat’s main purpose of travelling to Almaty, Kazakhstan, for the Asian Championship was to fight against her two biggest rivals: Japan’s Mayu Mukaida and Qianyu Pang of China. Less than 100 days before the Tokyo Olympics, competing against them would have given the Indian medal contender a fair appraisal of her preparations for the Games.

Mukaida and Pang, as it turned out, did not show up for different reasons. Phogat did. The gold, in the Indian wrestler’s own words, was on the offering. And she took it without conceding a single point, becoming the new Asian champion in the 53kg weight category. In eight attempts, this was the first time Phogat won the gold medal (she has three silver and four bronze medals).

But even without Mukaida and Pang, Friday’s triumph went beyond mere record books for Phogat. “I learnt a lot of things despite the tough opponents not here,” Phogat was quoted as saying by the United World Wrestling (UWW) website.

She spoke about the need to improve her recovery between the bouts, which “is not the best right now”. But there is another issue Phogat said she is ‘struggling’ with — low blood pressure. This, Phogat said, affected her in defeat to Mukaida during the Asian Championship last year. “Last year in Delhi during the Mukaida bout, the last one minute was little blurry. So I was thinking it will improve here, but I am still struggling with it,” Phogat told the UWW.

On the mat, however, there were few signs of it as she trampled down her opponents without breaking a sweat. In a depleted field, she stormed into the semifinals with two wins by technical fall against Mongolia’s Otgonjargal Ganbaatar (11-0) and Taipei’s Meng Hsuan Hsieh (12-0). In the semifinals, she got a walkover against South Korea’s Hyunyoung Oh, who suffered an injury earlier in the day, and in the gold medal bout, she defeated Hsieh by fall (6-0).

The win continued Phogat’s fine run since her return to competition after the pandemic-forced break. Before Almaty, she won the titles in Kiev and Rome and while those wins will give her confidence in the build-up to Tokyo, Phogat will prefer to test herself against her two key rivals rather than going to the Olympics blindfolded.

Leaving nothing to chance

Phogat, Pang and Mukaida are the three top contenders in the 53kg category in Tokyo. The fourth challenger, Pak Yong Mi, will not be in Tokyo after North Korea pulled out from the Olympics citing the Covid-19 pandemic. And while Phogat has defeated Pang in the past, she is yet to pose a challenge to Mukaida, who has had an upper hand in their last three meetings.

Phogat and her coach Woller Akos have said they are leaving nothing to chance while preparing strategies to deal with their Japanese rival. Next week, she will be off to Bulgaria along with Akos after her proposal to train there was approved under the Target Olympics Podium Scheme.

The absence of China and Japan, the two women’s wrestling powerhouses, made life easier for other Indians too. Anshu Malik continued to add to her reputation by winning the 57kg gold medal. The 19-year-old, who secured her Olympics quota last week, conceded just three points en route to winning the gold.

Divya Kakran, still getting over the disappointment of losing in the selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers, trampled down her opponents in the 72kg to win her second continental title while Rio Games bronze medalist Sakshi Malik settled for a silver medal after she got pinned in the final.

Indian women ended with four gold medals from this Asian Championship, with Sarita Mor opening the country’s account on Thursday. There was a chance to add one more medal to the tally, but Sonam Malik, who picked up an injury during the Olympic qualifying tournament last week, did not compete.

On Saturday, Bajrang Punia – another medal hopeful for the Olympics – will renew his rivalry with Japan’s Takuto Otoguro, with the two likely to fight for the gold medal if they win all their bouts.

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