NEW DELHI: Vinesh Phogat scores read a perfect three out of three ever since the Tokyo Olympic-bound wrestler has made her competitive return to the mat this year in February. At the three tournaments that Vinesh has competed so far – XXIV Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial in Kyiv (February), Matteo Pellicone Rome Rankings in Rome (March) and Asian championships in Kazakhstan (mid-April) – the reigning Commonwealth and Asian Games champion returned home with a gold medal each time. In fact, her gold at the Asian championships was her maiden yellow metal in her previous seven attempts.
However, the reigning world number one in the women’s 53kg class, Vinesh has conceded that she’s struggling with her recovery after competition and the lack of aggressiveness during bouts, while also looking to strike a coordination between her body and the mind. “I entered the competition arena after a year in Kiev and realised that my wrestling wasn’t that smooth. There was certain stiffness in my body and my movements during the bouts weren’t matching my mind. Then, in the second competition in Rome, I managed to strike a balance between the two. At the Asian meet, I faced recovery issues after the weight loss and the aggressiveness during bouts was missing. I have realised that my recovery after dropping some weight isn’t that great…it’s taking time. I am figuring out changes in my diet plan to resolve this issue. I used to play attacking wrestling, but I found the aggressiveness missing after returning to competitions. So, I need to figure these two issues out,” Vinesh said during a media interaction facilitated by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).
Vinesh informed that after changing her weight category from 50kg to 53kg for the Tokyo Olympics in 2019, she has been experiencing low blood pressure (BP) issue which has also made her recovery slow. “Since 2019, I have been struggling with low BP. Sometimes it happens during the competition and, as a result, I can’t see my opponents’ move clearly. Everything becomes blank for a while. So, I have to always keep my BP in check and constantly monitor its fluctuations. When salt intake goes down, I feel dizziness. It all started after the weight loss in 2019. During the Kiev tournament, it dropped down but, in the Rome meet, I managed to keep it under control. Nothing happened during the Asian championships. Still, with Tokyo three-four months’ away, I need to keep a strict check on it.”
Vinesh revealed that she has added new repertoire to her game under personal coach Woller Akos and that she has become a better wrestler both skill and technique wise. “Earlier, I would only look for attacks during my matches, whether I am winning or losing. I would make the same mistakes again and again. I had kind of become one dimensional. I was playing front wrestling like attacking straightaway. Now, I have matured and become a tactical wrestler. I know when to attack and how to read an opponent’s move. The timing is crucial. I now rely on motion and change wrestling like more hand movements and attacking the opponent only when there’s an opening. Earlier, I would be in a hurry to score points, now it was about playing clever wrestling with smooth hand and mind coordination. Both Woller and I will sit together on Saturdays to watch competition videos of my opponents who are coming to Tokyo. For every opponent, we are strategising,” she said.
In Tokyo, Vinesh will face stiff competition from the likes of Japan’s Mayu Mukaida, China’s Pang Qianyu, Poland’s Roksana Zasina, Sweden’s Sofia Mattsson and Belarus’ Vanesa Kaladzinskaya, among others.
“Mukaida and I understand each other’s game well. She will, too, be making strategies against me. I had thought about scoring against Mukaida through ground wrestling during the Asian championships. Sadly, she didn’t come for the meet after Japan pulled out of the meet. Against Mukaida, it’s best to score through ground wrestling and look to breach her defense. Against Sofia, she is a strong wrestler and she uses her strength as her weapon. But, she isn’t good in technique, so I would look to score points through technique. Roksana is also strongly-built but technically, she, too, isn’t that great. Belarus girl isn’t good in both strength and technique, so I’ll apply both forms of wrestling to beat her. So, for every wrestler, I’ll be having a different strategy during the Olympics.”
Vinesh also talked about her evolution post 2016 Rio Olympics where she had injured her knee during the quarterfinal bout against Sun Yanan of China. “In 2016, what happened was disappointing. I am mentally ready now even if a negative situation comes. I am prepared for anything. I have taken a lot of lessons from my setbacks. I was thinking why this happened with me but then, I realized that the universe always chooses you to be stronger and get back up. This is the law of nature. You have to face ups and downs in life. Whatever I am today is because of God. I was emotionally breaking down a lot previously. But now, I have become matured. If I lose today, I know I have flaws and can work on them. My anger has also probably become less. I was very aggressive but now I have controlled them. I have become mentally strong and have learnt a lot after Rio,” she added.
Vinesh was inducted to the Target Olympic Podium Scheme in 2015 and the total amount she has been supported with in the current Olympic cycle is Rs 87 lakhs. This is excluding the total Annual Competition and Training Calendar (ACTC) support of Rs 51 crores sanctioned by the Sports Ministry to the Wrestling Federation of India for the financial years 2019-20 and 2020-21.
Looking ahead to the Tokyo Games, she mentioned, “I’m on the right track. I’ve reached 85 percent in my performance but have not reached the peak yet. As close we get to the Olympics, I will start peaking. I want to take it slowly and don’t want to peak early. I am also making different strategies for different wrestlers. Some are strong, some are technically smart and so on. I have to go into the fights with them accordingly. I am aware that people have a lot of expectations from me but I’m not under any pressure. This gives extra incentive to perform and it can only boost my training. I have to bring the medal for them if they are asking.”
Vinesh also expressed her happiness over the qualification of teenage wrestlers Anshu Malik and Sonam Malik for the Games. “This time, I feel all wrestlers don’t have any fear of losing. They have a strong passion for winning. There is no fear. That is a plus point as it also gives them great confidence. I am happy Sonam and Anshu have joined me for the Olympics. I’m not the only woman wrestler now! They have a very good chance as they are still very young and gather a lot of experience. They will push me. I will push them as well.”
A total of six wrestlers – Bajrang Punia, Deepak Punia, Ravi Dahiya, Sonam Malik, Anshu Malik and Vinesh, will represent India at the Tokyo Olympics this year.