Updated: February 27, 2021 7:40:39 am
If it was a country, Budapest’s Vasas Sports Club would have ranked 24th on the list of most Olympic gold medals, sharing the spot with Switzerland. The 100-plus-year-old club has produced 50 Olympic and 55 World Champions, including the winner of Hungary’s first Olympic gold medal – incidentally at the Tokyo Games in 1964.
If Vinesh Phogat was looking for inspiration ahead of the Japanese capital’s second Olympics, then she began the year at the right place. In her obsessive pursuit of an Olympic medal, Phogat – after spending virtually all of 2020 at her village in Haryana due to the lockdown restrictions – has been traversing across Europe since the start of the New Year along with her personal coach, Hungarian Woller Akos.
Phogat’s first stop was the famed training centre in Budapest. From there, she travelled roughly 800km north to Spala in Poland, where she sparred with some of the top wrestlers from across the world. This weekend, the Indian wrestler will be in Kiev for her first tournament of the year – the Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial, which has attracted nearly 600 wrestlers from 34 countries. And after that, from March 4 to 7, she will be in Rome for the year’s first ranking tournament.
On Saturday, Phogat will step on the mat for her first competitive bout in a year – since the Asian Championship in New Delhi last February. “It (the Kiev tournament) will be hard because the last year has gone without any competition,” Akos says. “But the results are not important. I would like to see if she can wrestle seven, eight bouts in these two tournaments.”
In other words, the focus will be on Phogat’s match fitness. It’s been one of Akos’s priorities since he began working with her a little before the 2018 Asian Games. At the time, Phogat lacked the stamina to last all six minutes with the same intensity. That gradually changed with different types of anaerobic exercises, which involved quick burst high-intensity training sessions for short durations.
The anaerobic drills – short sprints interspersed with push-ups, pull-ups and weightlifting – helped improve Phogat’s heart-rate capacity from 182 beats per minute) to 190bpm, which meant Phogat could wrestle at a high intensity even after getting tired.
His focus then shifted to the Indian wrestler’s technique, adding new tilts and holds to her weaponry and changing her motion on the mat from going linear to circular. These were massive changes to her style, introduced gradually over a period of 15 months, when it all came to a sudden halt last year with the pandemic.
The consequent lockdown meant Phogat was stuck in Kharkhoda, Haryana, while Akos was in Budapest. Training continued via video calls, but resumption means work is still in progress. “The first thing for us is to return to the individual techniques that are ‘forgotten’ during the lockdown,” he says, in reference to the feel of competition.
For many, the postponement was an opportunity to prepare better. Not quite for Phogat. “This situation is not a problem for the countries which have a lot of high-level partners at home and they don’t need to travel abroad for it. For them, it was an advantage (but) for us, it was a disadvantage,” Akos says.
The gulf in the 53kg category is massive in India. Phogat towers above the rest in this category. With no one to challenge her at home, even in training, Phogat has been forced to look abroad. At Vasas Sports Club in Budapest, the focus was on the physical side of training. “We worked with the men and women wrestlers at the club and at times, with the Hungarian national team,” Akos says. “In Poland, we got a lot of really high-level partners so it was the best situation for us.”
Kiev will allow her to ease into tournament mode after a gap of one year. There are three wrestlers ranked inside the top 10 taking part in her category – Phogat ranked the highest. Rome, next week, will provide a better glimpse into where she stands, both in terms of fitness and technique.
Akos isn’t looking at results. “If we play more matches, it will help our preparation regardless of the result,” he says. “For us, just one tournament matters, the Olympic Games.”
Explained: Why Phogat is forced to look for sparring partners abroad
While most Indian wrestlers are training at the national camp, Vinesh Phogat has been training separately outside the country. This is because, in her category, there are no wrestlers of the same technical level with whom she can train to improve her level. While she could train with sparring mates with more strength and speed, it is tough to find many who can technically challenge her. So, Phogat has been frequently travelling to Hungary and Poland, where she gets to spar with some of the best European wrestlers, including those from the national team of those two nations.
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