How Vinesh became Winesh

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Improved stamina, technical tweaks gave Vinesh three gold medals a month — a much-needed morale booster ahead of the Worlds

There is scope for improvement in Vinesh’s mat movement, says her coach. He wants the Haryana freestyle wrestler to jettison her linear movement in favour of a circular one. (Express file)
From somewhere in the middle of a dense forest in Spala, Poland, Woller Akos is talking about heartbeats. In broken English and crackling voice, the Hungarian wrestling coach repeats three words to drive home his point: 190bpm, threshold and Vinesh. The words that explain, at least partly, the reason behind Vinesh Phogat’s recent golden run.

Phogat, one of the few medal prospects for India at the 2020 Olympics, won three titles in the 53kg weight class in the last month: first at the Grand Prix of Spain, followed by Yasar Dogu ranking tournament in Turkey and the Poland Open. En route to a hat-trick of gold medals, she defeated a Rio Olympics bronze medalist, and a few other wrestlers who are ranked in the top 10 of the world.

The gold medals, though, do not excite Akos. Neither do they make Phogat more — or less — favourite for a podium finish at next month’s World Championship or next year’s Olympics. The bouts she has competed in over the last month, however, have reassured Akos and Phogat of one thing: “She can wrestle in a high-level match for six minutes. Not just three,” Akos says.

Overcoming a shortcoming

One of the shortcomings of Phogat’s otherwise solid game has been her stamina. It became a boringly predictable pattern: start strongly with high intensity, run out of steam in the second period and, consequently, allow errors to creep in.

“In the first period — in the first three minutes — she did actions but in the second period, there is always some mistake and she lost,” Akos says. “The difference between the Vinesh of now and before is that earlier, when she got tired, she stopped. Always. But now, she can work more even after reaching the tired point.”

A numbers man, Akos rattles out a few fascinating figures to illustrate Phogat’s increasing stamina.

Vinesh Phogat becomes first Indian to be nominated for Laureus World Sports Award

Vinesh during the medal presentation ceremony of women’s freestyle 50 kg wrestling event at the Asian Games 2018.

“One aspect we have worked on is her heart-rate capacity,” Akos says, adding that it helped in providing more oxygen and energy to the body. “At the start of the year, Phogat’s maximum heart-rate was 182bpm when she trained. So we would reach that threshold, take a short break and bring it down to 120bpm and restart our training. That way, we have gradually increased her maximum capacity to 190bpm.”

The training Akos talks about wasn’t restricted only to drills on the wrestling mat. 10m sprints were added to her routine to make Phogat quicker on the mat — these were interspersed with pushups and pull-ups. Weighlifting was another major addition to her programme — when they started, Phogat recorded a personal best of 75kg in clean and jerk and 117.5 in dead-lifts.

Building blocks

These might appear to be trivial details but few realise the importance of ‘building these blocks’ better than Akos. In his short career, there were few parts of his body that weren’t injured. Eventually, his creaking bones and sore muscles forced him to retire in his mid-20s. Therefore, ever since the 34-year-old took Phogat under his wings in June last year, there has been a single-minded focus on making her a Duracell Bunny.

From this perspective, the recent European swing has been a reaffirmation for Akos and Phogat of all they’ve done in the last 12 months, especially after moving up from competing in 50kg category to 53kg. Akos knows the gold medals in Spain, Turkey and Poland in the last four weeks would mean nothing if, for starters, Phogat does not end up in top-6 at the World Championships in Nur Sultan (Astana), Kazakhstan, from September 14 to 22. Those finishing in that bracket will earn a quota for the Tokyo Olympics.

“So the medals are not important. These were only preparation tournaments, so it did not matter if we won gold or silver or bronze or even were out in the first round. We need more matches, more high-level matches because Vinesh has changed her weight category,” Akos says.

The training stint in Spala provides just that. The Olympic centre, surrounded by forest and spread over 22 hectares, currently has about 100 wrestlings training there, according to Akos. “From USA, Canada, Sweden, Hungary, local girls from Poland, Norway, some from Ecuador, Tunisia… from everywhere,” he says.

The Japanese hurdle
It’s an interesting mix for Phogat to spar with. But one nation is missing from that list as well as from the recent competitions Phogat has competed in: Japan.

The Japanese domination in women’s wrestling at the Olympics is comparable to China’s stranglehold in table tennis or USA’s in basketball. Few have found a counter to the blinding speed and tactical supremacy of Japanese wrestlers — at the Rio Olympics, the hosts of 2020 Games won four gold medals out of the six on offer.

Phogat is among the few who has upset a Japanese wrestler in a major championship. In the Asian Games final last year, she rattled Yuki Irie with subtle tweaks to her style and clinched the gold. In the 53kg class, she is likely to come up against two-time world champion Haruna Okuno (she was the 55kg champion in 2017 and ruled the 53kg category at the worlds last year). The other Japanese contender in this category is Mayu Mukaida, who had defeated Vinesh in a one-sided bout at the Asian Championships earlier this year.

There are others as well, of course. World No. 1 Sarah Ann Hildebrandt of the USA has been solid the whole year while there’s a tasty rivalry building up between Phogat and China’s Qianyu Pang. But it’s Okuno who will enter the World Championship with a target on her back, and Akos has already begun scheming.

New tilts and holds are being added to Phogat’s armoury — like the two-on-one and headlock positions, and the underhook. There’s been renewed attention on transitions after a takedown or a leg-attack, with Akos keen to add “one or two more actions”, like a leg-lace or gut-wrench during transitions. But a key change is likely to be seen in Phogat’s motion on the mat.

Phogat’s movements are often forward-and-backward. Akos wants her to move in circles, instead.

“What is important against the Japanese girl is foot motion. We have started to train in a way that her motion on the mat is circular so as to not give an opportunity to the Japanese girl to attack,” Akos says.

The idea, he says, is not just to prepare Phogat for her opponents, but also to see her react in situations where she isn’t comfortable. “The training for World Championship and Olympics is to get Vinesh out of her comfort zone. It has to be very hard, physically and technically. Everything we do is designed that way.”

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