Paris 2024: Vinesh Phogat secures Olympics quota to prove she’s far from being finished

Vinesh Phogat has been embroiled in controversies and injuries since winning her gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2022 but secured a quota for the Paris Games in Bishkek on Saturday.

Published : Apr 20, 2024 20:01 IST , New Delhi - 8 MINS READ

File photo: The 29-year-old (left) beat Laura Ganikyzy of Kazakhstan by technical superiority with the scoreline reading 10-0 to win one of two Olympic quotas for the Paris Games with three months to go.
File photo: The 29-year-old (left) beat Laura Ganikyzy of Kazakhstan by technical superiority with the scoreline reading 10-0 to win one of two Olympic quotas for the Paris Games with three months to go. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap/ The Hindu

File photo: The 29-year-old (left) beat Laura Ganikyzy of Kazakhstan by technical superiority with the scoreline reading 10-0 to win one of two Olympic quotas for the Paris Games with three months to go. | Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap/ The Hindu

Vinesh Phogat might already be a two-time Olympian for India but it’s fair to say that her third Olympic quota which she won at the Asian Olympic qualifiers in Bishkek on Saturday might be her sweetest yet.

The 29-year-old beat Laura Ganikyzy of Kazakhstan by technical superiority with the scoreline reading 10-0 to win one of two Olympic quotas for the Paris Games with three months to go. Earlier in the day, Phogat beat Samnang Dit of Cambodia by fall and Miran Cheon of South Korea by technical superiority.

None of her opponents would qualify as the highest rung of those Phogat had fought and beaten over her illustrious career. But Phogat’s biggest battles were not just on the mat.

“You don’t have to have a competition with Japan and China for it to be a competition. On the mat everyone is strong. I had to fight two competitions,” an emotional Phogat told UWW (United World Wrestling), “One is the competition itself and the other is the weight cut.”

The weight cut was only one of the final -- if particularly challenging -- hurdles Phogat had to clear. “She’s gone through hell to be here,” said Viren Rasquinha, the CEO of Olympic Gold Quest, who has supported Phogat for several years including the 2020 Olympics.

She had last competed at an international competition at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

That had been followed by a bitter fight for several weeks on the streets of New Delhi as she, alongside wrestlers Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik, led an unprecedented protest against the erstwhile president of the Wrestling Federation of India, Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, who was accused of the sexual harassment of Indian wrestlers.

‘Finished wrestlers’

Brij Bhushan, trying to defend himself from the charges, had accused the protestors of being ‘khatam (finished) wrestlers’ who were just trying to keep their spot on the Indian team by any means necessary.

When Phogat attempted to make a comeback after the protest was suspended, she picked up a serious ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear in her knee, for which she had to undergo surgery.

In her absence, India would find another claimant to what was then Phogat’s undisputed spot in the Indian roster in the 53kg category.

Although Phogat had won two bronze medals at the World Championships in this particular weight class, she had to rehabilitate her knee even as Junior World Champion Antim Phogat earned an Olympics quota and a world championships bronze medal in the women’s 53kg.

Athletes say that an ACL tear is the hardest injury to recover from. This was the second one for Phogat – she had earlier torn her ACL at the 2016 Olympics. “The recovery was really hard. She would be crying at the end of every practise session. She would cry after a running session. It’s hard to see someone as strong as her cry,” Rasquinha said.

Even after she recovered, the road wasn’t clear for Phogat. On her return, she had a choice to make. She had to either move up a weight category to the 57kg category or try and reduce weight to make the 50kg weight division.

According to Rasquinha, the unanimous advice from nutritionists, strength and conditioning experts and physiotherapists was to move to the 57kg category. “The only one who insisted on going down to 50kg was Vinesh. She said she would do it,” he said.

RELATED: Vinesh, Anshu, Reetika secure Paris 2024 Olympic quotas

On her comeback in the national championships earlier this year, Phogat competed in the 55kg category and then subsequently at the selection trials for the Olympic qualifiers in Patiala, she competed in the 50kg category.

She was already pushing the limits of her body at this point.

Phogat had moved to the women’s 53kg category in 2019 after it had become increasingly hard for her to cut her weight down to feature in the 50kg category – in which she last competed at the Asian Games.

The shift had been made since forcibly reducing weight essentially through a process of starvation and water deprivation made her increasingly injury-prone.

Age, a lengthy protest leaving her unable to train and a major surgery, followed by a half-a-year-long rehabilitation made a successful return next to impossible.

Tokyo nightmares

According to Rasquinha, Phogat weighed 60kg following her surgery. While few doubted her quality as a wrestler, what was far more uncertain was her battle with the weighing scale. “I’ve not changed my weight out of any happiness. I’ve done it out of necessity,” Phogat told UWW.

Physically it was a terrible option. At the Tokyo Olympics, Phogat had been plagued by blackouts that left her unable at times to even see – a consequence of the extreme water loss she subjected her body to in order to bring her weight down to 53kg.

“When you dehydrate yourself to that extreme, you leave yourself open to all sorts of neurological issues. Competing at 53kg was hard enough. No one knew just how bad things could get when she brought her weight down to an even lower weight,” Rasquinha added.

While her draw at the Olympic qualifiers fell almost perfectly – she avoided Kim Song-Hyan, the Asian Games silver medallist of North Korea, in her pool and and Asia’s toughest wrestlers – from China, Japan and Mongolia had already qualified last year – her biggest challenge came a few hours before the start of the competition when she had to make weight.

If she hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t even be allowed to wrestle. Back in 2016, back when she competed in the women’s 48kg division, Phogat had failed to qualify at the Asian Olympic qualifiers when she wasn’t able to make weight on time.

Shedding 15 percent of body weight isn’t something one can really prepare for. At the National selection trials, wrestlers are given a two kilograms weight exemptions – Phogat had to weigh under 52kg instead of exactly 50kg in Patiala.

There was no exemption at the Olympic qualifiers. She had to weigh in under 50.00 kg precisely. This was uncharted territory.

“Cutting the last two kilos is the hardest bit. It’s not something you can practise doing because it’s so dangerous. Phogat did it for the first time in Bishkek. We didn’t know what would happen until she actually did it,” Rasquinha said.

This time, nothing was left to chance. She travelled separately from the Indian wrestling team with her personal coach Woller Akos and physiotherapist who managed her weight cut down to the gram.

“Three days before her competition Vinesh was 52.7kg. Two days before her weigh in she was 51.4kg. The night before her weigh in she was still 400 gram above the weight limit. On the morning when she stood on the scale she was exactly 49.90 gram,” Rasquinha added.

A major battle had been won. But there was still the competition ahead.

“I was very nervous. It is an Olympic qualification competition. There was a lot of mental pressure. I was not sure how my body would move because I’ve reduced my weight to 50kg after 5 years and I’m also coming back from injury,” Phogat said.

Her team did the best it could. There was a systematic process to help her recover in time for the competition. This had also been planned for. Phogat had travelled with a personal sparring partner who gave her the confidence to safely warm up and practise her techniques.

Fight not over

Having won the quota, however, Phogat’s fight isn’t done yet. At the selection trials, Phogat controversially competed in both the women’s 50kg category and the 53kg category.

Although she has won a quota in the 50kg category, there’s no doubt that it will be much easier for her to compete in the 53kg category even if that means forgoing her chance to make use of the Olympic quota she’s already won.

Phogat will have to make that decision eventually. Speaking to UWW, Phogat said she would fight at whichever weight she had to. “I have won a quota for the country. I will go in whichever weight I can be it 50kg or 53kg. But whatever happens, I’ve won a quota for the country,” she said.

If she will have to wrestle in the 50kg, there’s more pain waiting for her. and Phogat knows it.

“I need to manage my weight management better. Every day will be important. I have naturally a lot of muscle mass. Whatever I do, I will gain weight. But I’ve been I’ve been wrestling for 20 years. I just want an Olympic medal. That’s what I’m competing for,” she said.

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