Fighting her way back

Wrestling: Recovering after suffering a knee injury at Rio, Vinesh Phogat has set sights on this year's Asian meet

Fighting her way back

“Haarna nahi hai!” (You just shouldn’t lose), is a message that Mahavir Singh Phogat, enacted by Aamir Khan, harps on in Dangal — a biopic on wrestling's Phogat sisters. Strikingly for Vinesh Phogat, Mahavir’s niece, it was this thought that urged her to continue her quarterfinal bout against China’s Sun Yanan at the Rio Olympics even though her lower body refused to move.

It’s a moment that haunts her even today. The heartless side of sport that often gets overlooked in the larger picture, leaving the athlete frustrated. Unfortunately for Vinesh, on that fateful day at the Carioca Arena, she twisted her knee awkwardly in an attempt to get out of her opponent’s grasp.

“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,” recalls Vinesh almost five months later as she gears up for a return to the mat. “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,” she adds.

The 22-year-old was a medal hope for the country going into the Rio Games. With a gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, followed by a bronze at the Asian Games and then the silver at the 2015 Asian Championships, where she clinched the Olympic quota, Vinesh was expected to be the flag-bearer of Indian women’s wrestling at the Games.

“People had their hopes on me and even I knew I could achieve something in Rio. But then I had one fear -- the fear of not competing to my potential. And at that level silly things like these make a difference. I lack experience on the big stage. If you were to look at my trajectory, you would find that I had come up the ranks very quickly. Be it the Nationals or the Asian level. I lack on the experience front. But then Rio was a good learning experience. I will grow stronger from now on,” she promises.

The road back has been tough. Vinesh had her right knee operated on and is now in Bengaluru undergoing her rehabilitation under the watchful eyes of her team at JSW Sports. “I am happy to be here. With a team that wants me to hit the mat as soon as possible,” she stresses.

“I have consulted my doctors too and even they’re very happy with my progress. I hope to get back on the mat in a month or two, but we don’t want to rush into anything,” she says sounding a note of caution.

The long road to recovery often tests an athlete’s mental strength. Things have been no different for this young wrestler too. From thoughts of quitting the game to seemingly reaching the point of depression, Vinesh has experienced quite a bit in the past months.

“It really hurts when you don’t know what the right thing to do next is. For me, there have been moments when I thought of quitting the game, or even reaching close to depression,” she says. “It’s really difficult to keep yourself motivated. In my case, I was at the Olympics — something that I have dreamt of throughout my life — when this (the injury) happened. So to come back from there, to get yourself treated, then the rehab… It’s been a struggle.”

But at JSW Sports, the wrestler from Balali in Haryana has found a second family. “It’s true. The guys here are like my second family. Just like you stop worrying about your problems when your family is around, I stop worrying about my troubles with these guys. Initially, I was like, ‘What the hell are they making me do? All this is so different.’ But then I slowly got into the rhythm and now things look very good. It’s like being with your mummy. You know that she’ll fix everything,” she explains with a smile that stretches from one ear to another.

Away from the mat, Vinesh is just like any other 22-year-old — carefree, bubbly and lively. She runs behind her friends, attempting to try her wrestling moves on them, making time for selfies and a front-runner in doing something that she's forbidden to do. But when it comes to her sport, it is her discipline during this crucial phase that has helped her be on track with the rehabilitation. “I would say it’s the most important thing of an athlete’s life,” she notes.

“Mind you, this is coming from a person who is famous for breaking rules. If there’s one thing that has helped me through this phase, that’s my discipline. I think there’s a kid inside me, someone who doesn’t want to be bound by any rules. But this is the first time I felt the need to be disciplined in my approach. I think that has helped me a lot,” she explains.

Getting stronger by the day, Vinesh’s eyes are now firmly set on the Asian Championships to be held in the country later this year. It will be a big step forward for her and Vinesh hopes to make it count, eager to use it as a launching pad in her journey towards Tokyo 2020. After all, she has to put a few records straight when it comes to the Olympic Games.

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