In April 2018, just as the picturesque city of Gold Coast, Australia was gearing up to host top-flight athletes as part of the 2018 Commonwealth Games, a young 24-year-old Indian wrestler was preparing to push for gold in the 50kg category.
Having clinched the top honours from the 48kg category at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Vinesh Phogat was one of India's biggest medals prospects and she did not disappoint, clinching a dominating 13-3 win over Canada's Jessica Macdonald to defend her title in style.
Close to a little over four months later, Vinesh stole the headlines yet again with a 6-2 win over Japan's Yukie Irie to become the first-ever Indian woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Asian Games.
Many touted 2018 to be a watershed year for Vinesh Phogat, but for fans who were keen followers of Vinesh's career graph, the back-to-back gold medals were the perfect antidote to her unfortunate exit at the 2016 Rio Olympics and a stamp of authority that seemed to suggest that Vinesh was back, and was raring to make a comeback at the 2020 Olympics.
The 2016 Arjuna Award winner was mighty impressive throughout 2019 with three gold medals, one each at the Yasar Dogu International, Poland Open and courtesy of her top spot finish at the World Wrestling Championships, Vinesh also booked her spot in the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
With the dawn of a new decade and a brand new opportunity for Indian athletes to push for Olympic glory, Vinesh began 2020 on a great note with a gold medal at the Rome Ranking Series.
Although a bronze medal finish at the 2020 Asian Wrestling Championships could prove to be a minor stumble in an otherwise perfect path for Vinesh ahead of the Tokyo Olympics 2020, in an exclusive chat with Sportskeeda, Vinesh outlines her methods of dealing with a weight of expectations, India's chances of domination at the Olympics, her targets and a whole lot more.
"Being a top athlete, there is always the pressure of expectations from people. Every athlete or top player is consistently under pressure to perform well, the key point is to deal with the weight of expectations. The way I deal with pressure is different, the way the other athletes deal with it could be a lot different."
With 2020 set to manifest into a massive year for Indian sports, Vinesh believes that her gold medal win at the Rome Ranking Series is more than just adding another medal to her glittering trophy cabinet.
"To start off well (the year) is quite important. If the beginning is good, there is a sense of momentum and a positive feeling that everything is going in the right path. When I clinched a gold medal in the Rome Ranking Series, I was happy that although there was some strong competition, I was able to overcome the challenges and do well. It's important to not only celebrate wins but to learn from the flaws and improve with every match."
Back in 2016, Vinesh was competing in her first-ever edition of the Olympics in the 48kg category but her campaign came to a screeching halt when she had to be stretchered off during her quarterfinal bout against China's Sun Yanan.
Vinesh did start well and pocketed the first point before Yunan struck back with two points, but an unfortunate knee dislocation saw Vinesh grimacing in pain as she was ruled out of participating any further.
Turning the clock back to the global event four years back, Vinesh reminisces the injury and what it took to make a comeback.
"It's always difficult to make a comeback from injury. Your inner belief is shaken. You lose belief in everything and everyone. Personally, as a wrestler, my training regime took a huge hit and I couldn't train. In that phase, a lot of thoughts came gushing into my head, and most of them were negative thoughts."
"I would continuously blame myself and it was a very tough phase. However, I still had the drive to come out strong from the situation which helped me to make a gradual comeback, and that drive keeps me going even today."
Yet, four years down the line, the injury continues to play a big part in Vinesh's training routines and the wrestler shares her two cents about the impact of her injury in the current day.
"It certainly continues to trouble me. Everything hits me like a flashback, whenever I start my training session. The process of my warmup, the way I picked up the injury, what I did wrong, everything comes right in front of my eyes every single time, and now a lot more since the Olympics is nearing. It's not easy to forget, it always plays a big part in my training."
Post the gold medal win at the Rome Ranking Series event, Vinesh recently claimed a bronze medal at the Asian Wrestling Championships. While most fans would have settled for nothing but gold from Vinesh, the 25-year-old stresses on the importance of learning from the mistakes.
"My aim ahead of every tournament is just to give my best. It's important to understand that sometimes the body doesn't work, it's all part of the process. Even ahead of the Olympics, my goal is to give my 100%, and not succumb to the pressure. I will obviously give my best, but if on the day something does not work for me, I will learn from my mistakes."
While 2018 was a special year for Vinesh as she clinched gold medals in premier tournaments, she claims that the gold medal from the 2014 edition of Commonwealth Games saw her transform into a champion wrestler.
"The turning point wasn't in 2018, it was actually way back in 2014 when I contested in the Commonwealth Games for the first time in my career. Before that edition, I did not know much about wrestling, I did not know what standards I needed to meet. But after CWG 2014, I understood the sport and my reactions improved tremendously. I was honestly surprised at how well I could do, so that was probably the big moment."
Born into a family of wrestlers, the sport of wrestling is something that has come naturally to Vinesh and when quizzed on needing to meet the expectations from her family, she narrows it down to handling the pressure and making the most of all the support she receives to hone her skill and produce her best in any given competition.
While Vinesh has her cousins Geeta Phogat, Babita Kumari and uncle Mahavir Phogat to look up to for inspiration, she sheds light on how she focusses more on improving her own skill and outperforming herself with every match and also claims that she derives her desire to excel from every sporting discipline.
"I don't look up to anyone particularly, I'd like to say that I am my own competition and I always push to keep improving my performances. Then again, Sushil Ji has done really well for the country and I constantly keep learning from him. Saori Yoshida is a big inspiration."
"But to be honest, I take the inspiration from not just one sport. As a country, we are blessed with quality players from across sports like tennis, Indian sports, badminton, and athletics so the drive is always there and the performances from each athlete in our country always inspires and motivates me to do well."
Having competed in multiple global tournaments including the 2016 Rio Olympics, Vinesh has quite a lot of experience under her belt and will undoubtedly be the beacon of light for a few youngsters set to represent the nation for the first time in the Olympics.
Vinesh draws comparisons between India's campaign in 2016 to this year and feels that the urge to win medals is a huge plus point in India's push to finish on top of the podium across events.
"There's a gulf of difference in the quality from then to now. During the 2016 Olympics, there was a doubt of qualification and the wrestlers were not expected to bring back too many medals. Many of us didn't know how to deal with the weight of expectations and train well enough to stave off the competition."
"But this is my second edition of the Olympics and I have a good understanding of what it takes to do well at such an event. I can train the youngsters, prepare them for whatever could come their way, basically my experience could help them. Similarly, across sports we have a whole lot of experienced athletes taking part in the Tokyo Olympics 2020. This experience will certainly help to train the youngsters and we've got a great chance at claiming multiple medals this year."
"The bigger the contingent, the bigger are our chances of adding to the medal tally. This year, the biggest difference is that there is a drive in each athlete to win a medal and not just participate in the Olympics. I feel that's a big positive."
With injuries a decisive factor in contact sports, Vinesh understands the importance of needing to keep fit which will only heighten her chances of landing a gold medal at the global event in July.
"I think my biggest challenge will be to remain injury free. Trying to keep away from getting injured will be a big focus point for me, since if I do pick up an injury, I will need to stop training completely. I am always involved in preparing myself for upcoming challenges, so if I manage to remain injury free, the burden of needing to make a slow comeback to full fitness will not be a thorn in my plans."
With 2019 being a watershed year for Indian shooters and athletes such as Neeraj Chopra, KT Irfan among others putting in impressive performances to qualify for the Olympics, Vinesh firmly believes that the Indian contingent travelling to the Tokyo Olympics 2020 has a big chance of making history.
"I have noticed that all the athletes who have qualified thus far are high in confidence and know how do deal with pressure. Even the young shooters who have qualified are mature and they have dealt with a lot of pressure in their career. The biggest plus point I feel is the motivation within the squad. Basically we learn from each other and we are all happy with each others' success, that's a great feeling."
With the Phogats leaving a mark in the field of wrestling, there was yet another Phogat who made the headlines late in 2019, as Ritu Phogat, who made the shift from wrestling to Mixed Martial Arts clinched her first career win at the One: Age of Dragons event in Beijing.
But for Vinesh, Ritu's switch from wrestling to MMA is a personal choice and has not irked curiosity from the former, given that the sport is not associated with the Olympics.
"I can't say much about that (Ritu's switch to MMA) because that's her personal choice. Personally, I had no idea about Mixed Martial Arts. Since birth I have always concentrated only on wrestling. I have no interest in MMA, and to be very honest, my interest only lies in sports that are contested in the Olympics."
As Indian sports aficionados gear up to welcome yet another Olympic year, a lot of hopes will lie on the able shoulders of Vinesh Phogat to bring back a gold medal, and if form is anything to go by, one can expect the 25-year-old to come back home as a champion.Published 23 Feb 2020, 08:30 IST