Asian Games 2018: Vinesh Phogat’s tale of revenge and redemption


Written by Mihir Vasavda | Updated: August 21, 2018 11:33:04 am

Vinesh Phogat won India’s first-ever Asian Games gold in women’s wrestling.

Deploying her weaker left leg to launch attacks, Vinesh’s radical ploy caught her opponent Yuki Irie of Japan completely off-guard in the 50kg final.

It’s perhaps the most dramatic sporting sequence ever played out on the silver screen. Rocky Balboa, in his revenge ‘match’ against Apollo Creed, catches his opponent off-guard with an orthodox stance and then switches to southpaw in the final round. Vinesh Phogat’s switch wasn’t as dramatic or exaggerated as in the movie. But the impact it left on her opponent was no less significant. Vinesh has always used her right leg as the base to launch attacks, but it made her predictable and vulnerable. So on Monday, she planted her left leg forward. The subtle tweak rattled Japan’s Yuki Irie and landed Vinesh the gold. “The move totally surprised the opponent. It was the main reason she won,” Vinesh’s Hungarian coach Woller Akos says.

Akos was thousands of miles away in Budapest when Vinesh stepped on the mat for the 50kg category final in Jakarta. The 23-year-old Indian had had a surprisingly smooth ride till then. But in Irie, she was up against one of the trickiest wrestlers. During the break between the semifinal and the final, Akos sent a set of instructions via WhatsApp. The most crucial point was to not put the right leg forward. Japanese wrestlers, Akos says, traditionally move on the right side, use their right arm and aim for their opponent’s right leg. Whatever the case, Vinesh had to ensure she blocked Irie’s right, and switched the position of her legs. “If your right leg is at the back, the other wrestler has to reach out more and it may give you a chance to attack,” Akos says.

The plan worked perfectly. Irie was now playing by Vinesh’s rules – she wasn’t able to move to the right, her favoured tactic, and when she became desperate, Vinesh launched a counter-attack for a four-point move of her own, which set her on the path to the gold medal that looked improbable just two years ago. The last time Vinesh competed in a bout of such high significance, the Rio Olympics quarterfinal, she left the mat on a stretcher with tears streaming down her face. The knee injury she picked up against China’s Sun Yanan put an abrupt end to her dreams and there were genuine, grave concerns over whether she would ever be able to step on a mat again.

Like a death sentence
A former member of Vinesh’s entourage says the injury was virtually a ‘death sentence’ for her career. Vinesh isn’t so melodramatic, but says it left a massive impact on her psychologically. “It was a tough time emotionally and physically. But as they say, an athlete becomes stronger once she overcomes an injury. I think that phase has made me stronger,” she recollects her toughest phase. After spending a year in rehab at the Inspire Institute of Sport in Bellary, she returned to wrestling only recently. And five weeks ago, she began training for the Asian Games under Akos in Budapest. Akos, only 33, is a former European junior championship silver medallist. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he had injured almost every part of his anatomy and was forced to take up coaching. One of his biggest trainees happens to be his wife Marianna Sastin, a former World Championship and European Games gold medallist. “I got an email from Viren (Rasquinha) from OGQ five weeks ago to check if I’d be able to train Vinesh. I’d seen her on the circuit since my wife is also there and I had some ideas which I thought could help her,” Akos says. “Since my career was cut short because of injuries, I knew how tough it was for her to make a comeback. She was extremely strong mentally – I just had to plan on making her strong and reconstruct little bit of her technique,” he says.

There wasn’t much time to change her overall technique, so they worked on head locks and leg attacks. But Akos’s main focus was to improve her strength. Vinesh’s biggest asset is her speed, especially in the first two or three minutes. But as the bout progressed, she couldn’t keep up the same endurance level and the power in her moves also faded.

“So in the last few weeks, we did strength training in the morning and mat training in the evening,” Akos says.

Cross training for endurance
Vinesh indulged in a lot of cross-training; weightlifting was a major addition to her programme, recording personal bests of 75kg in clean and jerk, and 117.5kg in dead-lifts. 10m sprints were added to her routine to make her even quicker – but these short sprints were sandwiched between push-ups, pull-ups and chin-ups. The impact of the rigorous training regimen has been visible. After dominating a rather lightweight field at the Commonwealth Games, Vinesh sent out a warning sign to her Asian Games opponents by winning the Madrid Grand Prix last month, where she conceded just one point in five bouts. The Asiad was expected to be a tougher outing, but Vinesh made a mockery of the field – dropping just two points and spending a little over 11 minutes on the match en route to the final.

As fate would have it, she opened her campaign in Jakarta against Sun Yanan. She beat the Chinese wrestler 8-2 and followed it up with wins by technical superiority against South Korea’s Kim Hyungjoo in the quarterfinals and Uzbekistan’s Daulatbike Yakshimuratova in the semis. The strategic masterstroke had an element of silver-screen drama to it, with a cinematic flourish to win the gold.

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