A free spirit with astonishing self-confidence, Vinesh had the world at her feet. The blinds came down suddenly, however, as she struggled to qualify for the Olympics. Jonathan Selvaraj traces her story – from the thrilling rise to the spirited revival.
This Monday, a few weeks before her Olympic debut, Vinesh Phogat was shooting a television promo. She blinks hard through the glare of light boxes. The filmmakers want to capture her in different angles. ‘Look to the left.’ ‘Cross your arms.’ The 21-year old obliges with unpracticed intensity. She squares her broad shoulders and looks into the camera. “I am Vinesh Phogat and I am ready for the Rio Olympics,” she says. It’s a good take but the producer seeks more options. ‘One front-on,’ and Vinesh follows the drill, mouthing her line about ten times before the ad men are satisfied.
Her multiple reaffirmations of her ability were recorded nonchalantly. But it wasn’t always this way. Only a few months back, Vinesh had been racked with self doubt. She had had three chances to qualify for the Olympics in the space of four months and had faltered badly each time. “Did I really belong at the Olympics. Was I talented? Was I actually any good or did people make me out to be something I was not,” Vinesh recalls thinking. ‘I am Vinesh Phogat and I doubt whether I am ready for Rio Olympics,’ would have been a more apt line from that vulnerable phase.
The self doubt gremlins were something Vinesh was unused to. She was always touted as the next big thing. Her oldest cousin Geeta had broken ground when she became the first Indian woman wrestler to win a Commonwealth wrestling gold and later qualify for the London Olympics. Vinesh, who was recognised early in her career as one of most talented Indian women wrestlers was seen as someone who would go even further.
Just not others, but the self confidence in her invincibility is quite astonishing. It set in quite early in her life; winning had become a habit even before she began to wrestle. “When I was in school, we had to run a 200m race in the school games day. I was running when suddenly somebody tripped me. But I got up and still managed to win the race. I thought I was unbeatable,” recalls Vinesh.
The winning run would continue on the mat. She says she has never lost to an Indian wrestler.
So much so that she couldn’t believe it when she encountered her first loss in 2010. “The first match I lost in my life was in the final of the Asian Cadet championships to a Japanese wrestler (Irie Namami) in Japan. I lost only by a couple of points, but I couldn’t believe it. That was when I realised I could lose as well.,” she says.
And while there would be more losses, they were infrequent. Vinesh would win two bronze and a silver at the Asian Championships. At the 2014 Asian Games, she finished with a bronze, giving eventual winner and three-time world champion Eri Tosaka her closest bout (6-4) of the tournament. She had already matched Geeta’s gold medal run at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. She was scarcely 20 then.
Wrestling wasn’t her first love. She didn’t even like it initially. “Who wants to do it when you have your tau (Mahavir Phogat) beating you with a stick and then yelling ‘how will you win a medal at the Olympics if you train like this?’ I didn’t like wrestling as a kid. When I was little I preferred being in school with my friends and laughing and having a good time.” she says.
Even after she started to wrestle, it wasn’t an all-consuming affair. Wrestling was something she was just very good at. It was also just one of the things she felt she could do very well. “Life changed after cadet nationals. I still thought I could study and wrestle. In fact for the first year of my cadet camp, I carried my books with me as well. I felt I would be the first person who came first in class as well as wrestling.
Her personality continued to develop, so did the reputation as freethinking individual who spoke her mind. “I like being independent. I like being free.” The trait was noticed by others. “Vinesh is someone who speaks her mind. If she feels something isn’t right she will take a stand,” says Rucha Kalashkar. The JSW physio recounted an instance from earlier this year, when the hostelers at the women’s olympic wrestling camp at the SAI, Lucknow campus had problems with the food being served. “Despite being amongst the youngest of the campers, Vinesh was among the first wrestlers to protest. And eventually the contractor was changed,” says Kalashkar.
Not everyone has responded positively to her personality, “My friends sometimes say I have a habit of talking too bluntly. Sometimes my independence gets me into trouble as well.” She has also encountered conservatism from certain quarters. “When you go for tournaments, you travel with other wrestlers and normally everyone eats in fixed groups. They only sit with each other, but I always move and try to eat with someone else everyday. And people might say ‘oh look at her she is talking to a male wrestler’, even if I was just talking about the sport. But that’s not something that should matter,” says Vinesh.
She is admirably clear-headed in those situations. “I don’t have time for shayads (maybe’s) in my life. If you want to go ahead, go, or else get out of my way.”
Her distinct attitude manifested on the mat as well, sometimes leading to misconceptions. “Vinesh is someone who is always joking in practice. She always has a smile on her face. Not all coaches understand. They will say ‘why are you laughing? Why are you smiling?’ But it’s not like she is fooling around. When she is in competition, it will be like she turns a switch in her head and becomes very focused. But that’s the way she is” Kalashkar says.
So it’s no surprise that Vinesh has an active life outside the mat. “Because wrestling is such an old game the thinking associated with it is sometimes old as well. So people think that the reason those guys won is because they did old fashioned things. They believe that unless you do nothing but wrestle all day, you can’t be any good at it. But I can’t be one of those people for whom wrestling is the only thing they do in life. Some of the older wrestlers have that attitude. But that would be so boring,” she says.
While despite her best attempts, studies were too hard to manage along with a hectic career, Vinesh has other interests. She prides herself on being an excellent cook. “When I was very little, I would make these tiny rotis that my father would insist on eating. Even now when I get time, I’ll cook for me and my friends,” she says.
Fame can sit uneasily on most. Not many can handle it adeptly. Vinesh, however, is different. She had always dreamed about being known widely, and not reduced to the small world of her village . “I always had the dream that I would be known. That I would not end up in a small village like Ballali. Wrestling is good but I always wanted people to know who I was,” she says. So, she takes great delight in using the social media and is a natural at it. She is particularly active on image sharing network Instagram, posting pictures of training, motivational quotes and even the odd new hairstyle. “Instagram is a nice way to keep in touch with your fans.”
Kalashkar believes Vinesh’s thinking is due to her being part of a different generation. “Vinesh is a lot more easy going than (older cousins) Geeta or Babita. She will take on whatever comes to her. While the others are cautious. Simply because she hasn’t spent as much time with the seniors,” she says.
Vinesh has a different perspective. “I am my father’s daughter. My mom would always say my father was like that. He was always interested in learning something different. And once he decided to do something, he would never back down from it,” she says.
That never-give-up attitude pays off directly on the mat. “Confidence is what sets me apart from other wrestlers,”says Vinesh. “Your confidence comes through in your body language.”
She then makes a startling observation. “If you watch a wrestling bout nearly all the time, you can predict who is going to win the bout just by how they stand next to each other on the mat.”
Like any combat sport, wrestlers try to pack in as much muscle as possible while still making weight. The process of weight cutting begins about a month before the day of the competition. Most wrestlers in the 48-kg category – the lightest in competition – will drop about four or five kilos of water and body mass in the weeks leading up to competition. Vinesh who switches between competing in the 48 and 53kg division, would cut nearly double that – up to 8kg – in order to make the former category.
The drastic weight loss – almost 15 percent of bodyweight in Vinesh’s case – can be devastating physiologically and psychologically. “I’ll get angry really quickly and it’s a lot worse when I am cutting weight. So people know not to get in my way at that point of time,” laughs Vinesh.
The trade off, though, is that come competition day, post the weigh-in, a rehydrated Vinesh has a significant strength advantage over her rivals.
Yet all these advantages seemed to count for nothing when Vinesh tried to qualify for the Olympics. She first failed to qualify in the top six at the World Championships losing in the first round to North Korean world bronze medalist Kim Hyon-gyong. A couple of months later she missed her second opportunity at the Asian qualifiers, where needing to reach the finals to qualify, she lost in the semifinals by a solitary point to eventual champion Zhuldyz Eshimova.
The hardest blow though would come at the World Olympic qualification tournament in Mongolia. Vinesh wouldn’t even get on the mat, after she showed up for the weigh in 400gm above the weight limit. That embarrassment crushed her confidence.
The weight mishap had led to a storm of rebuke. The critics came out of the woodwork. Rumours swirled that she was willfully not participating due to doping concerns at the Belarus center where the team was training. Some said Vinesh never even tried to make weight. The wrestling federation would issue her a show-cause notice asking her to explain the reason for her failure, even as she begged for another chance to prove herself.
Kalashkar believes Vinesh’s failure to make weight wasn’t due to her fault, putting it down to conditions in Bulgaria. “When she went from India to Bulgaria, we felt she was a little heavier than she had to be but it wasn’t something that couldn’t be controlled. But what we realised later on was that the water in Bulgaria had a very high mineral content. This made the body retain fluid a lot harder,” Kalashkar says.
Vinesh too contests the charge that she hadn’t made an attempt to cut weight. “After training, I was spending hours in the sauna till my body felt it was burning up on inside, but I just wasn’t able to drop the weight,” she recalls. Breaking down with dehydration, Vinesh says she told her coaches there was no way she could make weight. She feels this may have something to do with the allegations of insubordination.
But more than the censure, it was the loss of self belief that was most troubling for Vinesh . “I was seen as someone who was expected to win a medal at the Olympics. First I wasn’t even looking like I could qualify. And now I couldn’t even cut weight properly? For the first time in my career I really started doubting myself. “ she recalls thinking.
It was a painful oscillation between self-pity and harsh self-criticism. Vinesh knew it was ultimately self-defeating. “When you start doubting you lose a lot faster. You aren’t thinking of your opponent anymore. When your mind wanders, you have to drag it into the right place, even if it doesn’t want to go there,” she says.
At her final chance at the second World Qualification tournament in Istanbul, Kalashkar recalls how Vinesh had made the mental switch away from despondency. “She was just really angry at herself. She knew she had the ability but she was not doing what she could to make it count,” she says.
Indeed Vinesh would dominate the competition dropping just three points and beating former World silver medalist Iwona Matkowska to take the gold.
Beyond just qualification, what Istanbul did is give Vinesh her confidence back. The road ahead is long and hard. Ranked 13 in the world, a medal at the Olympics isn’t a guarantee either. But having found her self belief back, it’s no surprise that Vinesh Phogat can look into a TV camera and confidently say “I am ready for the Olympics”.