Back home, after a rest of 24 hours, the pattern didn’t change. Repeated attempts to get through to Vinesh failed.
“She is like that, doesn’t talk to 99% of the media,” said coach Yadav. Half nelson. Tap out. Match over.
Last week, after shockingly losing her opening match in Belgrade to Mongolian Khulan Batkhuyag, Vinesh crossed her fingers. In wrestling, if an opponent who defeated you in the qualification rounds goes through to the final, you become active again for repechage rounds in quest for a bronze medal.
Vinesh had similar hopes. Batkhuyag was wrestling well and reached the final. Vinesh was alive again.
“We had little doubt that the Mongolian would reach the final,” said Vinesh’s coach Yadav, talking to Timesofindia.com.
Vinesh was the favourite for the 53kg gold after the withdrawal of Japan’s Akari Fujinami. But the challenges for women in sports go beyond the field of competition and injury scares.
In the middle of her weight-loss routine ahead of the tournament, en route to Belgrade, Vinesh’s menstrual cycle set in.
While that’s something women athletes world over handle routinely, dealing with menstrual cramps is never easy while preparing for a big tournament.
For Vinesh, a second medal at the World Championships meant a lot. After a decade on the senior circuit, ahead of her opening match in Belgrade, Vinesh had expressed her dissatisfaction with just one World Championships medal in 10 years.
But coach Yadav noticed something in training, which didn’t augur well.
“In warm-up, if a player is fit and fully recovered, his/her face becomes red, it shines because of fast blood circulation. But there was nothing like that on Vinesh’s face during warm-ups before the tournament began. Her face was yellow. It happens only when you haven’t fully recovered,” Yadav told TimesofIndia.com.
It was expected, though.
Besides a phase of natural phenomenon, Vinesh was also trying to lose weight. She was overweight by 3 kg about 48 hours before the weigh-in. To shed those extra kilos, she remained on an empty stomach for the most part. Finally, she was under 53kg.
But the periodical cycle combined with a weight-loss regime took its toll on Vinesh’s body, which, perhaps, wasn’t completely ready for her opening match.
Coach Yadav said it’s not taboo for female athletes to reveal the onset of their menstrual cycle to their male coaches, as they have to work very closely together. They discuss their problems openly.
“It’s not hidden because we have to work together. It’s natural. Sab players khul ke bolte hain (players speak about it openly),” Yadav further said. “Vinesh’s husband (Somvir Rathee) had reached Belgrade a day before we landed there and helped her with weight reduction.”
(Photo: United World Wrestling)
Vinesh’s battles with injury and her struggles to maintain her mental well-being began after her nasty injury at the Rio Olympics and a long recuperation period post surgery.
But she has made valiant comebacks every time an unfortunate injury knocked her down, like the nasty one at Rio 2016, the concussion she suffered in 2017 and the elbow surgery immediately after the Tokyo Olympics last year. The comeback gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games and this historic World Championships bronze medal are testament to Vinesh’s resolve.
But the Olympics remain a ‘monster unconquered’ for Vinesh, especially after another medal-less Games in Tokyo, where she was ousted in the quarterfinals, and it led to an emotional outburst. She was even suspended by the Wrestling Federation of India but then let off with a warning.
Since Vinesh was a gold-medal favourite, her first round loss in Belgrade at the World Championships saw her being targeted by many. Vinesh replied to her critics after returning from the Belgrade World Championships, which remain a largely unsatisfactory outing for Indian wrestlers despite the bronze medals won by Vinesh and Bajrang Punia.
“…for them (fans) it’s just one day of their life after watching a match. What they don’t realise is these things can seriously drag down and affect the athletes’ state, their mood, especially in difficult times,” Vinesh had posted in a message on Twitter after landing in India from Belgrade.
I hope everyone will be more responsible about their words.. Focus on what your athletes are doing well! People nee… https://t.co/oIv1oxBjCN
— Vinesh Phogat (@Phogat_Vinesh) 1663512010000
Coach Yadav says her mental battles really began after the painful exit from the Rio Olympics.
“Physically player jaldi fit ho jata hai, but psychologically upar aane mein time lagta hai (physical recovery can be quicker, but it takes time to recover when you are psychologically down),” Yadav told TimesofIndia.com.
“After Tokyo, in Istanbul (Yasar Dogu ranking series) her performance was down. She was physically not fit and was coming back after injury. But it was important to play, as we had to plan the future (schedule) accordingly.
“The biggest thing here (in Belgrade) was that this (medal) was important for her comeback. A CWG medal may be prestigious in the media but it is not big considering the level of wrestling. A medal in a big competition does a lot of good to a player’s mind and psychology,” Yadav added.
The medal, a second at World Championships for the triple CWG gold medallist Vinesh, was finally clinched.
After two repechage wins, over Zhuldyz Eshimova of Kazakhstan by fall and against Azerbaijan’s Leyla Gurbanova who got injured, Vinesh found herself in the bronze-medal match against fourth seed Jonna Malmgren of Sweden.
She carried her injured knee into the match against Malmgren and fought her opponent as well as her mental demons to wrestle like a wily fox, evading the Swede’s attacks and surprising her with counters to score takedowns. Sudden explosions from Vinesh, just when Malmgren was least expecting those bursts from the Indian, caught the Swede napping and conceding takedowns.
Vinesh won 8-0.
Elbow surgery done! No matter how many times i fall, i will still rise ✊ https://t.co/T7WmtJUA2R
— Vinesh Phogat (@Phogat_Vinesh) 1631101600000
A comeback medal, with a touch of luck after losing her opening bout, was a monumental feat by Vinesh, who wasn’t at her hundred percent throughout the tournament. Her bronze-medal win needs to be celebrated. Not just because of the feat in itself, but because of everything she has had to overcome to get on the World Championships podium for a second time.
Add to all that consulting with neurologists to recover from the concussion she suffered in 2017, followed by battles with surgeries and an emotional meltdown, it’s been a hellish journey for Vinesh, and she is still decorated like none other among women wrestlers in the country.
“It’s natural, when you are chasing something for years, like an Olympic medal, and the whole concentration is on that, when it doesn’t happen because of a small mistake, then it does hurt,” Yadav told TimesofIndia.com.
And then he reiterated.
“Physically player jaldi fit ho jata hai, but psychologically upar aane mein time lagta hai.”