Vinesh Phogat: wrestling with emotion

Backed by her coach, the Indian wrestling ace is busy channelling her energy towards staying in her ‘zone’ in the coming months.

Vinesh Phogat has never been afraid of expressing her emotions.

On the wrestling mat, as in life, Phogat has laid bare her soul.

In tears when she was stretchered off after suffering a knee injury at the Rio 2016 Olympics, Phogat was unable to contain her happiness after sealing a quota place for the Tokyo Olympics at the 2019 World Championships.

Having assured herself of an Olympic place - the Wrestling Federation of India’s policy dictates that the quota winner travel for the Games unless injured - Vinesh Phogat was working her way into the Olympic year with the target of peaking just before the Games.

And the way she started her season suggested she was on the right track.

A gold medal at the season-opening Matteo Pellicone Memorial was followed by a bronze at the Asian Wrestling Championships in New Delhi.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic forcing the Tokyo Olympics to be pushed to 2021, Vinesh Phogat’s wait to return to the Olympic mat was extended by another year.

Though the Indian wrestler agrees that it was the best solution given the situation that the world finds itself in, there’s still a part of her that’s yet to come to terms with the news.

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This was every athlete's worst fear and it has come true:( Everybody knows that competing at the Olympics is the toughest test for an athlete but I believe waiting for an opportunity to be on that stage is tougher! I don't really know what to say right now but inside me there is a rollercoaster of emotions! . . . This is a very crucial time for the world and the greater sporting fraternity. Though I am very deeply disappointed, it is important more than ever to see the silver lining in this dark cloud. Now is the time for all of us to be stronger than ever, keep fighting these extraordinary circumstances and believe with all our might that we will overcome this challenge🙌💫 We need to summon all our reserves of determination, refocus, and work towards our goals! While there is more to this chapter, a new story is already being written, but WE WILL OVERCOME!✊ . . . We are all together in this, one world, one goal! This is that unique chance to do something for your family, your community, your country, and OUR world! ✨🌟🌟 #Tokyo202one 🇮🇳🙌💪

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Abhi tak nahi hua, nahi ji. (It’s still to sink in),” says Vinesh Phogat over a phone conversation with the Olympic Channel.

“I have accepted it, but that feeling remains. This is in no way saying that the postponement was a wrong decision. It is the need of the hour, and there's no doubt regarding that. But I don't know how to explain what I am feeling...”

It’s when she runs out of words, that Vinesh Phogat lets her emotions take over.

Vinesh Phogat’s safe space

For someone, whose dream is to stand on the podium at the Olympics, the postponement is still something she is grappling with.

It’s also a reason why the Balali girl has taken to penning down her thoughts. Vinesh Phogat says it’s her safe space. Somewhere she tends to scribble down her raw emotions.

“It’s largely got to do with what I feel on that day. There’s barely anything technical that I write. It’s more emotional,” she says before breaking into laughter.

“The whole point of this is to remind myself of what I went through on a given day. Be it the day I lost a final or the day when I was not at my best in the training. I tend to write everything down. And later when I read it, I know how I have to be mentally going into a certain moment.”

The coping mechanism is helping the Indian wrestler come to terms with the postponement of the Games.

But right now, the usually chirpy Vinesh Phogat has her entire focus on staying in her ‘zone’. Even amidst a lockdown.

“Right now the focus is on ensuring that I try my best to keep myself fit in the best way possible, mentally be in that zone and keep focus. I don't want to cut myself off from the whole process. I don't want to start all over again,” she says.

Helping her in this endeavour is her personal coach Woller Akos.

The Hungarian has been with Vinesh Phogat since 2018, a period that has seen her make big strides forward on the international stage. And even here, it’s about the emotions.

Back in the day when Vinesh Phogat was looking for a personal coach, there were a handful of quality names that she was provided with. While their credentials could not be doubted, the Indian wrestler was keen on hiring someone who she could connect with on an emotional level.

Vinesh Phogat says she maintains a diary where she tends to scribble down her raw emotions. 
Vinesh Phogat says she maintains a diary where she tends to scribble down her raw emotions. Vinesh Phogat says she maintains a diary where she tends to scribble down her raw emotions. 

Among the few that Vinesh Phogat considered was Woller Akos. The two were introduced by one of Vinesh Phogat’s Hungarian friends. And when they met during one of her training stints ahead of the 2018 Asian Games the two immediately struck a chord and in no time, Akos was a part of ‘Team Vinesh Phogat’.

Striking the right chord

“He has been a quality addition and the results speak for what he's done with me,” says Vinesh Phogat about her coach.  

“He's someone who believes in training hard and smart. Wrestling is not just about who's the stronger, it's got a lot to do with who is smarter. That's something that he's helped me learn.” 

While there have been no let off on the training front (Akos is known to be a disciplinarian), what’s helped Vinesh Phogat is the Hungarian’s ability to understand his ward at an emotional level. 

“He understands me and my body language well. For me, it's about emotions and how I feel. If I am in the right mood, then things go well for me,” she says. 

“There's no dearth in motivation when it comes to Akos. He knows when I am not in my zone. I need not tell him that something isn't working for me. He will realise it when he sees me.” 

Apart from the mental toughness, the Hungarian has also worked on Vinesh Phogat’s flaws and helped her become the force that she is today. 

“Circular motion…,” Vinesh Phogat says before breaking into laughter when asked how much Akos improved her game.

“Initially, I never used to do the circular motion. It was always in-out for me. That would give my opponents easy openings to grab my leg. But Akos was adamant that I switch to circular motion and it's helped me. I don't give away my leg too much now.”

While her left leg has been famous for the wrong reasons for a long time, Vinesh Phogat has improved her upper body movements too in the past few years.

“I have added a few more moves to the array. If you would have noticed, I don't concede points that soon now. Instead, I have started scoring early into the bouts. That's helped a lot,” she says.

“These are some of the tangible improvements that I could see in myself. But apart from these, there are a lot of finer aspects that we have worked upon as well.”

With some tangible improvements and some that she knows is helping her go that extra mile, Vinesh Phogat has proved her worth every time she takes to the mat.

After the anguish of Rio 2016, the 25-year old will be hoping for happier memories at the next Olympics.

But whatever lies in store, Phogat will always wrestle with emotion.

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