Sweat, strength and broken bones
It takes an entire day to get her to agree to speak to me. She has not met anyone outside her small group of wrestlers for the last few days, refused all requests for a single quote, not stepped out of her room unless it’s absolutely necessary and doesn’t answer phone calls if they are not from her family or close friends. The Elite Sportspersons’ hostel at the Sports Authority of India Centre in Lucknow is a secure haven that has kept her away from all she wants to avoid — both people and things.
A freak injury during training has meant Vinesh Phogat, who was the favourite for a gold medal, no less, at the Wrestling World Championships at the end of October, has been ruled out of action for the next two months at the very least. It is a major blow to the 24yearold’s hopes of ending the year where she started it — atop the podium. Given her form in the runup to the competition, including a comprehensive win at the Asian Games, the frustration is understandable.
It is not easy being Vinesh Phogat. She has struggled for years to emerge from the shadows of her morefancied cousins, Geeta and Babita. She has done it, but struggled with injuries. The spotlight on the biggest stage for a wrestler was snatched from her just as she was preparing to bask in it — the Rio Olympics will be remembered, she admits, for what could have been till she twisted her knee during her quarterfinal bout.
Two years later, her dream of being a world champion has been crushed — yet again — by injury. This time, though, the anguish is a lot more given her growth as a wrestler in the interim, but it is tempered with a lot more understanding of her situation – and fate. “Rio se to mai hamesha har cheez ke liye prepared rehti hun (Ever since Rio, I am prepared for everything),” Phogat says, once she finally agrees to a quick chat.
The apprehension is only partly due to her injury; news articles about her personal relationships and her preference for foreign coaches have created avoidable attention. Phogat still refuses to meet in person, though — “I cannot even change my clothes without help and I don’t want anyone to see me in this condition” — and it requires a lot of assurance to get her to open up.
Once she does, she is willing to talk about herself. “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,” says Phogat. “It is better to plan for the future instead. I had a lot of hope of returning with a medal from the World Championships this time, but I will now try and use this time off to work on my shortcomings.”
This would have been Phogat’s fourth World Championships as a senior. A 10th place finish has been her best performance so far — in 2013 and 2017 — and it has taken an incredible amount of sweat, strength and broken bones to go from that to title favourite in the space of a year.
Wayne Lombard, the head of strength and conditioning at JSW Sports for the entire period that Phogat struggled after the 2016 Olympics, says she has come back a lot quicker than most mainly because of her mental strength. “It can take between six and nine months for even the most elite athletes to return after the kind of injury she suffered. Luckily for us, Vinesh is extremely strong mentally.”
“That helps because you go from training every day to not training at all and it is not easy. Specially for someone like Vinesh, who trains a lot harder than anyone else, it can be quite taxing. But we took time and went through, explaining to her what her limitations were and the process of healing,” says Lombard, who is currently the scientific advisor to the Indian women’s hockey team.
It wasn’t easy, though. Phogat had a posterolateral ligament complex tear in her knee — and it is every bit as serious as it sounds. Lombard explains that, unlike other common ligament injuries where only one or a few ligaments are torn, a PLC tear means practically every ligament in and around the knee is gone, making it impossible for her to do anything with that particular leg. “It is not just learning to walk again, I practically had to learn to crawl and understand what to do with the leg and the knee. It was an experience that was as in