Feature | Wrestling

Vinesh Phogat is India's wrestling rebel

Alongside her sisters, the top Indian female wrestler grew up battling societal pressures, training against men and beating up bullies. Now she wants Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020

By Ubaid Parkar and Andrew Binner ·

Vinesh Phogat will enjoy the support of one billion Indians in her bid to win wrestling Olympic gold at Tokyo 2020.

The south Asian nation craves a second individual Olympic title, and expectations are high for one of the world's top female freestyle wrestlers at 53 kg.

It strange to think, therefore, that not so long ago many of Phogat's compatriots objected to her, and her family's participation on the mat.

But the Phogat women continued to train in defiance of the gender inequality that existed in the northern Indian state of Haryana.

"Vinesh would beat boys who were rude to her"

Following the murder of their father over a land dispute, Vinesh and her sister Priyanka were raised by their uncle Mahavir.

Their new guardian was a former amateur wrestler, who decided to teach his four daughters and two nieces the sport.

A bold move in a state where women were often banned from entering wrestling facilities.

"When she was in school, Vinesh would beat boys who were rude to her," her brother Harvinder disclosed, revealing Mahavir had advised her to stand up to bullies.

Hitting the big time

By the time she was 19, Vinesh announced her arrival on wrestling's big stage.

Representing the 2013 Asian Wrestling Championships, she bagged the women's freestyle 52kg bronze medal.

Vinesh then body slammed her way to gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games titles.

These accolades, combined with those of her family, made the surname Phogat synonymous with wrestling in India.

In 2016 she was awarded the Arjuna Award for her sporting achievements, which was particularly poignant given the abuse she and her family once received for chasing their wrestling dreams.

"Girls need to stop feeling pity for themselves or considering themselves weak. You have to have the strength of belief in yourself. The first step has to be taken by a girl herself; everything else follows” - Vinesh to The Hindu.

Shortly after this, the Phogat story was immortalised through Bollywood film Dangal.

The encouragement and support Mahavir Phogat gave Vinesh and the other girls to wrestle led to a major shift in mentality towards women playing sport.

Vinesh Phogat celebrates winning the gold at the Commonwealth Games

Darkness in Rio

Vinesh's stock was on the rise, and expectations were high as she stepped onto the mat at the Rio 2016 Olympics.

She breezed through the first round, but disaster struck when she injured her knee during the quarter-final, exiting the tournament on a stretcher.

"I was confident of winning the medal that evening, and if it was not for injury, I would have definitely bagged one that night" - Vinesh Phogat after her Rio 2016 injury.

The loss was tough to take, particularly as Vinesh saw the Games as her opportunity to emerge from the shadows of her more-fancied cousins, Geeta and Babita (both Commonwealth Games champions).

A chance for redemption

Vinesh suffered a posterolateral ligament complex tear in her knee at the Olympics, which was every bit as serious as it sounds.

Far from continuing her wrestling career, her focus was on learning how to walk again.

“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” - Vinesh to The Hindu.

"Now the focus is to work on mistakes and areas of concern, get back to training quickly for the next year when the Tokyo Games start.”

But Phogat did not struggle through years of jeers and taunts when she was first learning her trade in patriarchal Haryana, to end her journey after Olympic disappointment.

The significant mental and physical struggles she endured during rehabilitation, meant she returned to the mat an even stronger wrestler than before.

In 2018, Vinesh became first female Indian wrestler to win a gold medal at the Asian Games, before taking the United World Wrestling Yasar Dogu International and Poland Open events in 2019.

Vinesh Phogat age of expectation?

After her torrid time at Rio 2016, Vinesh will be looking for a chance to shine at Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Born on the 25th August 1994, Phogat will turn 26 shortly after the Games, so the Indian wrestler is in the prime of her career.

Her rebirth of sorts means that India's eyes are once again falling on her in hope of a gold medal.

She has battled for female equality her whole life, she has even battled for recognition in her own family.

Now it's time for her to battle on the biggest stage to fulfill her golden ambitions.