Rio 2016 pain keeps grappler Vinesh Phogat on her toes

Unable to make an impression at Rio 2016, the Indian wrestler will settle for nothing less than a podium finish at the Tokyo Games next year.
By Naveen Peter

Talk about Vinesh Phogat and it’s her quarterfinal bout at the 2016 Rio Olympics that is at the forefront of most people's memories.

Tipped as one of the favourites to land a medal for India at the Games of the 31st Olympiad, wrestler Vinesh Phogat's Rio Olympics campaign seemed on course when a freak injury cut her journey short.

Up against China’s Sun Yanan in her last-eight bout, the Indian grappler twisted her right knee awkwardly in an attempt to get out of her opponent’s grasp, resulting in a serious injury.

Though she could barely move, lying on the mat at the Carioca Arena, all that the Indian wrestler wanted to do was get up and continue the bout.

“I still don’t know what happened. I just wanted to shake it off, get up and continue. But my legs just didn’t move,” she said.

“I was like ‘just give me a few painkillers. I want to go in there again.’ I just didn’t want to give up. That’s not me. But that didn’t happen. I could see everything slip off my hand and I was there, lying helpless.”

Indian wrestler Vinesh Phogat had to forfeit her 2016 Rio Olympics quarter-final bout following a knee injury.

Vinesh Phogat was confident of bagging an Olympic medal that evening, instead, she was stretchered off the arena in tears. She returned to India on a wheelchair.

She underwent surgery to address her knee injury, followed by a well-planned rehabilitation under the watchful eyes of a team of experts in Bengaluru before she returned to the mat five months later.

While many would remember her energetic, carefree and lively personality, Vinesh Phogat was a picture of concentration and determination ever since she returned at the 2017 Asian Wrestling Championships -- a competition that saw her win the silver medal.

It’s never easy to step on to the mat and regain confidence after a career-threatening injury. But Vinesh Phogat went on to ace this test as well.

The Indian wrestler returned to the mat with extra hunger and also adapted to her new weight category -- 50kg -- with ease.

Prepared for everything since Rio

What followed was a dominant 2018 season, marked with wins in major tournaments.

She started with a silver medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships and then went on to win gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games a few months later.

But the highlight of the season came at the Asian Games in Indonesia where she became the first Indian woman to win a wrestling gold medal at the Asiad.

She carried her form into 2019 as well. The wrestler, trained by the famed Mahavir Singh Phogat, moved to the 53kg weight category with an eye on reducing injury risk and to prolong her wrestling career. She adapted well.

While she was on the money at the Asian Championships and the invitational competitions, Vinesh Phogat came into her own at the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan.

Despite being handed a difficult draw, the Indian wrestler managed to clinch a bronze medal at the World Championships and earn India an Olympic quota for Tokyo 2020.

What surprised many at the Worlds was the ease with which Vinesh Phogat went about her business despite coming up against quality opponents in Olympic and multiple World Championships medallist Sofia Mattson and former Worlds medallist Sarah Hildebrandt.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic might have hindered her preparations in the past months, if her recent past is anything to go by, one can expect Vinesh Phogat to be in top shape when the Tokyo Olympics comes calling. 

“Ever since Rio, I am prepared for everything,” she had said a couple of years ago. “I have accepted that some things are not in my control, whether injuries or anything else. Anything can happen. 

“But I cannot keep brooding over what might have happened. It is better to plan for the future instead,” Vinesh Phogat had concluded.