India’s 2019 in wrestling: Olympic quotas and future promise

Big names Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat’s show at the World Championships keeps India in Tokyo 2020 medal hunt.

By Saurabh Shankar ·

As the year draws to a close, India’s top wrestlers, their coaches and support staff and the federations can all give themselves a pat on the back. The past twelve months have been very productive for the nation’s grapplers with Bajrang Punia and Vinesh Phogat picking up Olympic quotas while many others making their mark on the global stage.

Vinesh Phogat’s stellar rise

At the Rio 2016 Games, the then 21-year-old Vinesh Phogat’s dreams of winning a medal were cruelly halted in the quarterfinals after she suffered a knee dislocation in her bout against China’s Sun Yanan.

Nearly four years on from that disappointment, the grappler from Haryana has risen up the ranks again to become one of India’s leading prospects for an Olympic medal in Tokyo next year. Following on from her Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medals in 2018, Vinesh won a gold at the Grand Prix of Spain in early July.

The 25-year-old continued her fine showing in subsequent tournaments, winning the Yasar Dagu International as well as the Poland Open, beating Rio Games bronze medallist Sofia Mattson enroute to her gold medal.

Vinesh’s finest hour of 2019 however came at the World Championships in Nur Sultan, where she lived up to the hype and claimed a bronze medal as well an Olympic quota for India. The Indian grappler lost her bout in the round of 16 but got a way back into the competition through the repechage rounds, and made the most of her opportunity as she defeated Sarah Hilderbrandt of the United States, Yuliya Khalvadzhy of Ukraine and Maria Prevolaraki of Greece to win that elusive bronze medal. 

Her triumph at the World Championships was more special as she became India’s first wrestler to win an Olympic quota in a competition where Sakshi Malik, Divya Kakran and the others faltered in the early stages. Vinesh capped off her year with a gold at the National Championships, and looking forward seems destined to boss the mat in the 53kg freestyle category.   

Four medals, three Olympic quotas

Indian male grapplers weren’t left behind at the World Championships, as Bajrang Punia, Ravi Kumar Dahiya, Deepak Punia and Rahul Aware all won medals in that competition, with the former three sealing two more Olympic quotas for the country. 

Bajrang was the top-ranked wrestler in the 65kg category heading into the World Championships, and lived up to his lofty standards as he left with a bronze. While not claiming the gold could be construed by many as a disappointment, the fact that the 25-year-old sealed his maiden Olympic quota is reason enough to celebrate for the nation’s wrestling fraternity.

While Bajrang was touted the favourite at the World Championships, the likes of Rahul Aware and Ravi Kumar Dahiya surprised all with their resolute performances in the biggest global competition of the year. Dahiya took down some big names like Yuki Takahashi of Japan and Arsen Harutyunyan of Armenia to win the bronze medals. 

Similar was the case for 28-year-old grappler Rahul Aware, who took down a few big names in the repechage rounds to clinch a bronze medal in the 61kg category. Aware’s victory was all the more special as he managed to put his state of Maharashtra on the wrestling map of India, breaking the dominance that wrestlers from Haryana held till then. 

Deepak Punia - Star in the making

2019 has well and truly been the unearthing of young grappler Deepak Punia. He became the first Indian in 18 years to win a junior World Championships title in August this year, but that was just the start of what was to be a stellar season. Deepak came very close to winning India’s first gold medal at the senior World Championships in Nur Sultan, but for an ankle injury which forced him to forfeit the final.

The youngster nevertheless won India’s only silver at the World Championships this well, as well as claiming that elusive Olympic quota in the 86kg category. Deepak was named junior wrestler of the year for his brilliant showings this season, but his seamless transition to the senior level is what keeps India’s sporting patrons optimistic of medals in wrestling come the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Indian wrestling has been on the rise in 2019, with their established names delivering the goods when it mattered, while many emerging stars have made their mark, as shown by the dominant display at the South Asian Games. The grapplers seem to have peaked at the right time, with just a few months now left ahead of the Olympics of 2020.