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

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