A change in weight category has brought with it a change in mindset for Vinesh Phogat and the trailblazing grappler has no qualms accepting that she no longer considers dominance a stroll in the park.
She ruled the 50kg category, winning gold medals at the Asian Games and the Commonwealth Games last year but missed out on competing at the World Championship due to a last-minute elbow injury. Early this year, she switched to 53kg.
It has been a mixed bag for her in the new division. Top finish eluded her at Dan Kolov (silver) and the Asian Championship (bronze) but she grabbed gold at Grand Prix of Spain and Yasar Dogu.
“It takes time to adjust to new things. It’s not physically but mentally we have to be prepared better. In 50kg, I knew that except 3-4 wrestlers I am not going to give anyone six minutes but in 53kg, competing 4-5 bouts for six minutes in a row is the new challenge for me,” Vinesh told PTI in an interview.
She has just secured her place in Indias World Championship squad by beating Pinki 9-0 in the 53kg trials.
It is highly unlikely that a compatriot would be able to challenge her at this point but Vinesh is mindful of the challenges that await on the global stage. “In 53kg, almost all the wrestlers are strong, be it strength or technique. I was strong in 50kg but in 53kg, everything is matching (with rivals), so I can’t say that I won’t let anyone wrestle with me for six minutes in this category, at least for now,” she said.
So, what changes has she made in her training since moving up to 53kg in which she is ranked world number six now with 46 points.
“I have focused on upper body a lot, both in the gym as well on the mat. I am also watching videos of wrestlers I have not yet competed against. This homework is being done every day. I am not giving priority to any one, two or three athletes. I am focusing on all. In 50kg, I would have given you 3-4 names but all are same in 53kg. The mindset that I am developing is that I have to give good fight for full six minutes,” she added.
Speaking of strong wrestlers, there is former world champion from Japan Haruna Okuno, world championship bronze-winner Sarah Ann Hildebrandt, who is now world number one, Chinas Qianyu Pang and Luisa Elizabeth.
Vinesh said her training style and off-competition regimen have been altered, keeping in mind the new demands.
“Earlier, we used to train very hard throughout the year but now we have realised that rest is equally important. So If I feel tired, we make the second training session light. If I continue to push, there will be a chance of injury and a tired body, not able to take training load, is more prone to injuries. It’s smart now,” she said.
Vinesh was also appreciative of India’s new foreign coach Andrew Cook and added that even juniors like Anshu Malik inspire her.
“Cook’s fitley and single-leg attack style is very good. I learn from him also when I am at the national camp apart from my personal coach. I also learnt from Anshu that how crucial is maintaining stamina in longer bouts. I was impressed with the way she maintained intensity for six minutes (during trials).”
Vinesh and Bajrang Punia are considered Indias best bets for medals at the Tokyo Olympic Games but she said the Indian team shaping up for Olympics will be full of strong contenders.
“People expect from us because we are very experienced and have results but there are others too. Among juniors, Anshu is coming up nicely. Pooja (Dhanda) has lost but she is very, very strong. Among boys, Ravi Dahiya is pretty good and he can do we at the international level.”
“They all just need more experience at the big stage. You cant say that only these two wrestlers are medal contenders. I strongly feel that our team for Tokyo will be very strong. There will be 4-5 contenders.”
Vinesh also said adding a few more attacking moves is her focus right now.
“I am trying to add variations. I don’t want to depend on two or three pet moves. I am simulating situations I have not been in, and trying to look for an opportunity to score points in that situation.”
“Wrestling is not a sport in which you can get hold of new techniques in 10 days. It may take a year but by the time Tokyo Games come, I feel I will be ready. I am trying to revisit what I used to do before I started dominating 50kg. It’s a difficult challenge but coaches are saying I am improving,” she said.