Bulgaria. China. Spain, Turkey, Poland, Belarus, the last four pit-stops made in five weeks.
Fifteen days before her latest long-distance flight, to Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan for the world championships, Vinesh Phogat relived testy days spent wrestling out of the suitcase.
“I’ve never liked travelling. I get fatigued, my body swells up. Headache, the diet changes completely. It takes me about two days to acclimatise. Travel screws up my system, even if it’s till Lucknow,” said Vinesh, at her home in Haryana’s Kharkhoda village. “But extensive travel was the coach’s plan for the year.”
Extensive travel, souvenirs of which are the bronze at the Asian Championships along with three gold and two silver medals from aforementioned destinations. Since joining forces with Hungarian Woller Akos, Vinesh has defeated World Championship silver medallist Sarah Ann Hildebrandt, bronze medallist Qianyu Pang, Rio Olympics bronze medallist Sofia Mattson and 2018 European Championship silver medallist Roksana Zasina.
Buoyed by the haul, the 25-year-old begins her fourth world championship campaign on Tuesday. A nightmarish draw (see box) stands between her and a first Worlds medal — or at least a finish in the top six to secure an Olympic berth — but Vinesh wouldn’t want it any other way. Neither would her hard taskmaster of a coach.
Vinesh became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling gold at the Asian Games last year. But that triumph came in 48kg, reached after an enfeebling weight cut. Vinesh moved up to the Olympic category of 53kg this year, and the various competitions weren’t the target, but target practice.
“It was about maintaining a certain level and compete in the category as much as I could. For the coach, the only thing that matters is the World Championships.”
Vinesh knew about Akos from a 2013 stint in Hungary. A desire to change the preparation this Olympic cycle made her reach out to the coach last year, and during the gold-wining Asiad campaign in Jakarta, Akos proved his worth through WhatsApp.
“Before the final (against Japanese Yuki Irie), he sent me a text saying ‘control the left’. That simple point changed the entire outcome.”
Travels and travails
The association between the two has been equal parts rewarding and demanding. Vinesh recalled how a training session in Lucknow, amid a power cut and the sweltering July heat, left her feeling like she’d die.
“Mat pe aag lagi hui thi (the wrestling mat was on fire),” she says. “The heat and humidity had drained me. You couldn’t even grip because it was so slippery from the sweat. The other girls left but I couldn’t skip the session.”
Vinesh is quick to add that she has only missed 5-6 training sessions this year, all due to illness. “But you can say ‘I have fever’ once. The second time, you hope your temperature is down because he wouldn’t cancel the session,” says Vinesh. “And he wouldn’t say anything. He will just stare coldly, or tap at his stopwatch. That makes me feel guilty for two days, as if I have committed the worst of crimes.”
But it’s all jest and no gripes. For one, Vinesh knew exactly what she was signing up for.
“Earlier this year, I reached Budapest at 2pm after a 12-hour journey. The coach was there to tell me about a training session at 4pm. I went, ‘Kya? This is not the Olympics!’ I said I am tired. And he made that face again. I knew I had to go.”
It’s hard work, but Vinesh knows the alternative doesn’t work.
“Our coaches before would have said ‘okay beta, go rest’,” laughs Vinesh. In India, if you say ‘by 5’ it means by 5:15. With him, I have to be on the mat at 4:50. Even the other girls are shocked by my punctuality nowadays.”
“Koi maar maar ke training karaye, mujhe pasand nahi hai (I don’t like it if somebody forces me to train),” adds the niece of Mahavir Singh Phogat and cousin of Olympians Geeta and Babita. “But you have to train well and put in the work.”
“In the past, we had to do the same rhythm for training the entire year. Hard training going into a competition, hard training after the competition. If you lose, double it. We had no idea that you can have high or low periods,” says Vinesh. “Here, every 15 days he’ll change something. Building your power with explosiveness. Even if you do light weights, he will make you do it fast.”
E for explosiveness
There’s a reason Vinesh brings up the word ‘explosiveness’ (16 times), during the conversation. In the first round of the Asian Championships in April, Japanese Mayu Mukaida muscled her out 10-0. Vinesh attributed the loss to being new to the 53kg and the resulting disparity in strength. Akos’ aim has been to accentuate her power through moments of explosiveness.
“He would make you do sprints on the mat. But everything he would make you do explosively. In speed, he wants to make you do explosive. His training is more wrestling-specific. Finishing is the most important. Until you have that ‘jhatka’, your technique won’t do anything.”
It was also after the heavy loss to Mukaida that iron-fisted Akos dusted out that rare ‘velvet glove’ approach.
“After that loss, I took off my shoes. I was crying because I lost so badly, and I wanted to purposely lose the next bout 10-0 too. Then coach asked me to wash my face and told me, ‘the competition isn’t over’”.
Having a personal coach also made Vinesh enviable to other wrestlers. “During the Asian Games, there was a lot of talk among other girls. ‘Let’s see how Vinesh does outside the camp’. But I like training by myself. Being away from the chit chat.”
And thus, Vinesh moved away from the Sports Authority of India, Lucknow centre to a personal camp at Partap Sports School in Kharkhoda, a two-minute walk from her in-laws’ place. Husband Somveer Rathi and Akos’ wife Marianna Sastin, whom he coached to a world championship gold, have helped her out as training partners. Akos, of course, made sure the sessions were not a minute late, finger on the stopwatch and eyes on his ward.
“The coach doesn’t say this is the last tournament. Here you have to do or die. If he says that this is the Olympic qualification tournament that means I might take extra pressure. He knows that there is a second chance and a third chance,” says Vinesh. “I know all of this is temporary. You have to keep walking forward regardless of whether it is a win or a loss.”