Vinesh Phogat was India’s big medal hope at the Rio Olympics before a freak injury cut short her dream. Stronger and fitter, in a different weight category and even more a favourite this time around, the 25-year-old is also the lone woman wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo edition so far.
She might have failed to break the Mayu Mukaida jinx — losing to the Japanese for the third straight time in two years at the recent Asian Championships — but she had a smile on her face and an easy acceptance of her opponent’s superiority.
How do you see your own performance in this competition?
There is a lot to learn still, a lot to improve. Wrestling is something you can keep trying and learning forever, it always feels incomplete. We can only try to improve. It is happening and the coach has also said we are getting better. The first time we faced off she won 10-0, then it was 7-0 and today it was 6-2, so somewhere what we are trying is working. But it will take time, nothing happens overnight.
What do you think are the shortcomings against Mukaida?
She has been competing in the same categories — 53kg and 55kg — for a long time now. She has the experience of being here, I don’t. I am trying. Japan is one of the top wrestling countries and it is not easy to beat its wrestlers. If it was that easy to shift weights I would do that before every Olympics and win a medal. It doesn’t happen that way.
You appeared cagey in the initial period against Mukaida...
That was a bit strategic because in both the previous bouts, she managed to score a lot of points in the first period itself and against a strong opponent like that, if the margin becomes too big it is not possible to cover it up. We had planned to not allow her too many chances early and then try and go on the attack whenever I got a chance.
She understands my style very well now and I also know her game. The first two points she scored today, she tried something in attack that she has never done before with anyone. Her plans worked better today, so clearly I have to work a lot more!
The fact that you have already qualified for the Olympics, does that have any impact?
Definitely. The pressure of going for a qualifier or managing weight is not there, you are a bit relaxed mentally. Right now I am only in the learning process, working and improving my game. I know I will be there at the Olympics and who could be my possible opponents and I am training accordingly.
How do you recover after losing an opening round?
When you are up against a strong opponent, you have to be prepared for any result. I know I lost because there are still areas of weakness, not because of luck or a bad day or anything. Those are excuses. I accept that she is better and I am not able to match her right now, but that is what we are working towards. Of course, it is disappointing to lose to anyone. At the moment I would say the difference between me and her is 80 to 100.
How would you compare your three face-offs against Mukaida?
At this level, everyone is watching everything about everyone else so I don’t want to reveal anything right now in terms of changes or planning. Against Japan, you cannot win on brute strength because its wrestlers are very strong. You have to be smart and beat them on tactics and technique.
Earlier, there would be no challenge to the Japanese wrestlers for years together, no one was good enough. But now we beat them occasionally and there are others challenging them. To be honest, I lost but I am happy that I got tough competition that is forcing me to push myself and bring out my best version on the mat. I will also get to know how much I pushed myself, my limits.
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