Ye bhi ek daur hai, woh bhi ek daur tha (this is also a phase, that too was a phase) — wrestler Vinesh Phogat tweeted on Sunday, a day after winning a historic third successive Commonwealth Games gold medal. The ring of philosophy around it is unmistakable. This is where she is at the moment.
Before the win, however, 27-year-old Vinesh would have felt a sense of déjà vu when she stepped onto the wrestling mat for the first time on Saturday afternoon.
Her opening bout in the women’s 53kg division at Birmingham, against World bronze medallist Samantha Stewart of Canada, was a virtual final. With the competition being conducted in the round-robin Nordic format, it was likely that the clash between the only two World medallists in the field would determine the eventual winner.
If the situation felt familiar, it’s because they were. Vinesh remembers how she was in a state of near panic ahead of her gold medal bout —incidentally against another Canadian wrestler — at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Gold Coast 2018 was her first major competition after a horrific knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “There was so much pressure on me after what happened at Rio. I remember how nervous I was. I was walking around, talking to myself, thinking kya hoga, kya hone wala hai (what’s going to happen)?
As she wandered around in a sort of stupor, a familiar voice called out to her. “It was Sushil pehelwan (wrestler Sushil Kumar). He said, 'Beta, kyun ghabra rahi hai? Tu toh sher hai, yahan pe bhi ghabrayegi (Child, why are you worried? You are a lioness. Are you going to get worried even here)!'" she recalls.
Talk of Sushil's run-ins with the law and giant fall from grace makes the wrestling community awkward, but no one denies the impact he has had on the sport and fellow wrestlers.
Vinesh remembers the exchange with the two-time Olympic medallist fondly. “He ran through techniques with me for a couple of minutes and said there was nothing wrong with me. He motivated me saying, 'Tu tagdi hai. Aise kar ke khel (You are strong. Play like this).'" Buoyed by the pep talk, Vinesh went on to win the gold medal by technical superiority.
Birmingham 2022 was Vinesh’s first major competition since another Olympic disaster – this time in Tokyo. If the Gold Coast Games were about recovering from the physical pain of the knee injury, the Birmingham Games were about bouncing back from the ‘mental torture’ that summed up her Tokyo experience.
Billed as a medal favourite going in, everything that could go wrong did. She lost to a lower-rated wrestler. Her demand for a personal physio was seen as an act of insubordination by the wrestling federation, which accused her of a few more acts of indiscipline for good measure. Even as she nursed the shock of the defeat, she was suspended from competing before eventually being forced to apologise for her ‘misdeeds'. A few weeks later, an injury was added to the insult. Vinesh had surgery for an elbow injury and it kept her out of action for almost half-a-year.
Wound healed, hurt remained
In Birmingham, as she paced in the warm-up area, there was no three-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist (Sushil) to soothe her frazzled nerves. She admits to these moments of anxiety, but will never let anyone know before game time, or during the action. "When I’m nervous, my palms sweat a lot. I start talking to myself, but I can’t let either my opponents or my teammates see me because that will spread the word that I’ve started running scared before the bout.”
In Birmingham, it was up to Vinesh to handle herself. And she did just that. She caught Stewart, a bronze medallist from the 2021 world championships, in a counter just after the first whistle. She took Stewart down and then turned her over for the pin, all inside 36 seconds. In doing so, she cleared the biggest opponent in her path to the top of the podium. Careful to avoid any potential banana peel moment, in her next bout against Nigeria’s Mercy Adekueroye, Vinesh picked up a 6-0 win before disposing of an outmatched Chamodya Keshani of Sri Lanka to confirm the gold medal.
Where Vinesh stands in Indian wrestling
Vinesh wrote herself into the history books, becoming the first Indian woman wrestler and only the second overall — after Sushil —to win three consecutive Commonwealth Games titles. That statistic and who she shares it with is a testament to exactly where she stands in the Indian wrestling pantheon.
Here’s something to take into consideration. It’s a fact that the field at the wrestling events, especially on the women’s side, at the Commonwealth Games, is bare. Vinesh is aware of the lack of depth. “In terms of wrestling, I can’t say it’s a world-level competition. It’s an ok competition. But the feeling of competing here is the same. Just competing is enough to give you a confidence boost,” she says.
Why Birmingham gold is so important to her
Birmingham and the gold matter to Vinesh, just as they did at Gold Coast in 2018, if only to serve as a rebuilding point. And there’s plenty of rebuilding to be done.
For a career that has had soaring highs — the first woman wrestler to be a three-time CWG champion, the first Asian Games champion, and world medallist — Vinesh has encountered shattering lows, too. “Nothing in my life seems to be in moderation. If I win, I do really well. But when something goes wrong, it goes completely wrong. When I fall, I fall all the way to the bottom and have to start from zero. Sometimes I ask God, 'Is it not possible that I just fall to about 50 per cent of my peak. Why do I have to start from zero every time.'"
She endured a painfully shaky time after Rio 2016, but her fall after the Tokyo Olympics, in comparison, was more drastic. So much so that at one point she even lost the will to compete. The Yasar Dogu ranking series in Turkey was her first competition after the Tokyo Olympics and injury and surgery. Vinesh wondered exactly what she was doing on the mat.
Competing against former world champion Jaccara Winchester of the US, Vinesh says she spaced out in the middle of the match. "I almost gave up in the match against Jaccara. I had just come back from surgery and, honestly, I wasn’t in very good shape. In the middle of the match, it almost didn’t feel that it mattered whether I won or lost. Jacarra was so happy after beating me.
"She didn’t even know I was thinking if I should quit in the middle. It’s as if the starter pistol has gone off and I’m still thinking do I want to do this or not. I knew it was going to be bad, but I didn’t know it was going to be this bad. Mat ke time khayali pulao bana rahi thi (I cut off from what was happening on the mat),” she says.
The fight off the mat
There would be trouble back in India, too. Sensing that the senior pro was vulnerable, the younger sharks started circling.
The young challengers used every trick they could — not all legitimate — to do what they could to usurp her spot on the Indian team. She feels some people ganged up on her. “During the trials for the Commonwealth Games, I could hear their coaches and supporters shouting, ‘She’s finished, she has nothing left.' That was really hurtful,” she recalls.
It was also the motivation she needed. “I am not finished. And if someone starts yelling, I am, then I’ll do whatever it takes not to let that happen. That’s just my personality, even from the time I was a child. If someone said you can’t do something... that’s it. Now, I have to go and do it,” she says.
A flicker of motivation has started burning a little brighter, but Vinesh knows it needs to be stoked constantly.
That’s where the Commonwealth Games come in. “The Games do get more attention, limelight. You could beat the best wrestlers in the world at an Asian or World championships and it won’t matter. You lose at a Games and that’s the absolute worst thing that you can do. Samajh rahe ho (Do you understand)? That is the end of it. There’s no guarantee that if you win one tournament, you can win the other, but in India, judge karte hain jaldi se (people are quick to judge). They decide whether you are good or bad based on one tournament. If I do well today, then 'she is the greatest.' If I don't, then 'she is useless, good for nothing, go home,'” she says.
The fact that things are a little easier at the Commonwealth Games helps. “In the Olympics, you have to be completely serious and focused. There’s no room for anything else. Here you have some room to breathe. It's not about being overconfident. But the difference is that you have to spend a lot of time preparing for a top-quality opponent and what they could do. It just exhausts you mentally,” she says.
Mastering the mind
Vinesh is still building up her stock of mental fortitude. “The difference from the last time (she competed at the Commonwealth Games) to this time is that I’m not coming back from an injury. This time, I’m still so mentally exhausted from all that has happened. That time (2018) when I returned, the fear I had was whether I’d recovered from my injury. This time it’s about whether I’m in control of my emotions, and whether I will be able to put what’s happened behind me,” she says.
That’s what makes Birmingham Commonwealth Games among the hardest competitions Vinesh has played. “It wasn’t as if the Canadian wrestler isn’t good this time or the last time. But everyone has doubts. Even at home, you have people thinking that this match could be a tough one. Sometimes even the lightest competition becomes so heavy in your mind. I remember how nervous I was before the CWG. In comparison, the Asian Games, which were actually much more competitive, wasn’t difficult at all. I didn't feel anything. Not even 1 per cent fear,” she says.
“This (Birmingham) competition is also the same as at Gold Coast. Because I know that the pressure of (what happened in) Tokyo will come onto me. I know it. I know the moment I see people on the mat or walk up to it, all those buried memories will come up once again,” she says.
All Vinesh can do, she says, is force those demons out so that they don’t bother her. “The thoughts won't stop. They will keep coming. But I can reduce the frequency. For that, I just need to lighten the burden I get with the Olympics. Because there’s no denying that there is a burden I’m carrying when it comes to the Olympics. I know that I was beating everyone and I couldn’t do anything at the Olympics. That burden of pressure and expectation is so heavy.
"It was there after Rio, too, but I didn’t give myself the time I needed to recover mentally. I just tried to force things to work. I thought in the past, I could just force myself to carry it. Now, I know that’s not possible. I’ve to take things slowly. I’ve given myself the time to get out of this feeling,” she says.
Bringing the pieces together
Four years after Gold Coast, Vinesh Phogat is older and scarred, but wiser. The third of her Commonwealth Games gold medal is the first glimmer of hope that things might fall in place eventually — the first step towards total redemption.
Before winning, this is how she saw it. “In 2014, the CWG was like the Olympics for me. In 2018, the CWG was like the best moment of my life. I rate it higher than Asian gold. Because It was harder for me. If I win here, I know how happy I will be because I’ve come back from a lot of mental torture. And how long it took to get over it. Every time I compete, every time I win, the sadness goes away a little bit. It’s still there in the back of my mind, but I think that I have already hit the bottom. Now, the only way is up."
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