Vinesh hoping to become the first Phogat sister to win an Olympic medal

The disappointment in Rio has made Vinesh Phogat even more determined to return with a Olympic medal from Tokyo 2020

By Deepti Patwardhan
Picture by UWW Media

If legends are to be believed, the collective dream of the Phogat family was born during Sydney 2000. Mahavir Singh Phogat, a former wrestler himself, and the patriarch of the family was inspired to train his children in the sport after learning of the handsome prize money announced by the state of Haryana for its Olympians.

Geeta Phogat, the central character of Bollywood blockbuster Dangal, was the first one to break through with a gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. But it is her cousin Vinesh who is touted to become the first Olympic medalist from the family.

Vinesh’s Rio 2016 was cut short by a horrific knee injury. But the ace wrestler has built herself back, stronger than ever. She won the gold at 2018 Commonwealth Games and then became the first Indian female wrestler to win an Asian Games gold at Jakarta 2018. Ranked No 1 in the 53kg weight category, she is one of the brightest medal prospects for the country at Tokyo 2020.

She is now the hero in one of India’s most inspiring sports stories.

Though the Indian state of Haryana has emerged as a sports hub of the country, it has one of the worst female foetecide and infanticide rates in the country. It’s a state steeped in gender stereotypes and patriarchy.

But the Phogat family, which hails from Balali village, broke all the rules, and the barriers. Mahavir Singh Phogat was determined to turn his daughters – Geeta, Babita, Ritu and Sangeeta -- and those of his younger brother Rajpal – Vinesh and Priyanka-- into wrestling champions.

“I still remember Vinesh’s father would scold me whenever I sought help from Vinesh or Priyanka for household chores,” Vinesh’s mother Premlata told the Hindustan Times in August 2018.

“He had given me strict instructions to let them focus on wrestling. If I needed any help, he said I should call my son Harvinder rather than Vinesh or Priyanka,” she said. “This was only possible because of Geeta’s father (Mahavir Singh Phogat). Had he not been strict with the children, I think none of the girls, including Vinesh, would have been able to achieve what they have.”

Tragedy struck the family when Vinesh’s father was passed away when she was only eight. A couple of years later her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

“I never wanted to disturb the training schedule of my children,” Premlata said.“So, I would travel alone from our village Balali to Rohtak for chemotherapy. I wanted them to make a name for themselves in the sport and, finally, they have succeeded.”

But the family fought through it all and marched towards their Olympic dreams.

“There was pressure on us before Geeta won the CWG gold,” Vinesh was quoted as saying during a 2014 interview to DNA. “Village elders and even my grandmother used to say that no family will want their daughters-in-law to play such a sport. But now, we're heroes.”

In the early days, Vinesh or her sisters had no clue what the Olympics was and why they had to cut their hair short and wake up before the sun to train for it. A glittering career in wrestling later, she knows exactly what it is, and what will be required of her if she wants to finish on the Olympic podium.

When will Vinesh Phogat be seen in action?

Vinesh will open her campaign in the women's freestyle 53kg wrestling event on Thursday, August 5.

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