Vinesh Phogat’s fortitude

At 22, Vinesh Phogat still has several years of competition left in her, and she is determined to make up for the Rio tragedy with the biggest prize in Tokyo 2020.

Vinesh Phogat arrives in a wheelchair to receive the Arjuna Award from the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, at the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on August 29, 2016.   -  R. V. Moorthy

Vinesh Phogat is stretchered off after she injured her knee in the quarterfinal bout against Yanan Sun of China in the Rio Olympics. Those few seconds, when she felt a jerk in her knee and fell flat on the mat, Vinesh says, are a blur.   -  REUTERS

She was a favourite in the Rio Olympics. The way Vinesh Phogat began her campaign, with a technical knockout in just under five minutes, there was no doubt that the youngest of the Phogat sisters on the international stage was on way to becoming the first Indian woman wrestler to win an Olympic medal.

That was until a freak injury during her quarterfinal bout against Yanan Sun of China cruelly ended her dreams and the hopes of a billion back home. The 22-year-old wrestler, who received the Arjuna Award recently, is back home in Bhiwani and recuperating from the injury that forced her to go to the awards function in a wheelchair.

It is almost a month since she suffered the knee injury, but Vinesh is yet to come to terms with it. “Gaye the medal ka sochke, wapas wheelchair pe aye hain, normal kaise ho sakte hain itni jaldi (went with the hope of a medal but came back in a wheelchair, how can anyone become normal so soon after that),” she asks quietly, and there is no answer one can think of.

Speaking to Sportstar, Phogat says the hurt is a lot more emotional and mental than physical. “Khwab to poora nahi hua, abhi to chalne-firne me bhi time lagega (my dreams were not fulfilled instead it will take some time now for me to even start walking around). Right now, my leg is in a cast, doctors have advised rest. It is supposed to come off soon, let’s see after that,” she says softly, the sadness evident in her voice.

Those few seconds, when she felt a jerk in her knee and fell flat on the mat in Rio, Vinesh says, are a blur. So much so that the trauma and realisation of what had happened took a few days to sink in, even as she was undergoing treatment at the Games Village. “It took 3-4 days for me to actually understand what had happened. At that moment, it was painful but the immediate, maybe spontaneous thought, was only about how bad it was and whether I would be able to continue the bout.

“It took time to realise that the dream for which we had been preparing for so many years, the dream that was the only ambition all these years, had been shattered. Jis sapne ke peeche bhag rahe the, wo sapna aise tootega nahi socha tha (I never thought my dream would be shattered). What is most disappointing is that it had taken so long to create an image, a hope that women wrestlers can compete with the best, and are medal prospects too. I couldn’t show to the world what I had prepared for,” she says.

Phogat, however, is happy with the accolades pouring in for her training partner Sakshi Malik, who won the bronze. “We wanted to prove that the women were no less than the men. Wrestling is still considered a man’s sport in India, a sport of strength, but technique and mind are also equally important. I may not have won, but I am glad that target has been achieved with Sakshi’s medal. It is good to win an individual medal but it is even better to break the stereotypes, prove to the world that women can do anything. And with Sakshi’s medal, women’s wrestling, hopefully, will find new takers, new support and spread to more areas across the country. We are seeing so much attention now on the sport — this is what we had targeted before going to Rio: that a girl had to win a medal,” she asserts.

The fact that she had cousin Babita with her in the Village helped a lot, but it also meant Vinesh had to mask her pain. “I did not want to stress her out but she was concerned about my injury and would spend a lot of time with me. Maybe that also affected her performance even though it helped me a lot,” Vinesh says.

At 22, Vinesh still has several years of competition left in her, and she is determined to make up for the Rio tragedy with the biggest prize in Tokyo (2020). But there is still time for it. Vinesh is now targeting a return to competition by May next year, when the Asian Championships will be held in New Delhi. She has a bronze from the previous edition but wants to do better this time. For now, however, she is looking forward to getting back on her feet, in every way.