India’s Vinesh Phogat comes from a family whose wrestling heroics inspired one of Bollywood’s best-loved movies. Now she has a chance to write an epic new chapter at the Tokyo Olympics.
The top-ranked 53kg freestyle wrestler suffered heartache at Rio in 2016 when she was carried off the mat on a stretcher with a career-threatening knee injury in the quarter-finals. Instead of the medal Phogat had been confident of winning, she returned to India in a wheelchair and needed surgery and five months of rehabilitation. But she has made an impressive comeback, winning gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games in 2018 and finishing third at the 2019 world championships.
And the 26-year-old goes into the Olympics in red-hot form after winning all four competitions she has entered this year, including a first-ever Asian championships gold.
“I now have the experience of playing one Olympics. I know what to expect, how to prepare and how to conduct myself,” Phogat told the Times of India newspaper.
“All these setbacks helped me become stronger and I feel I enter Tokyo as a much stronger athlete mentally. I want to finish what I have started.”
– Sequel to Rio heartache –
The start of the story was well-documented in the movie “Dangal”, about the rise of her cousins Geeta and Babita Kumari Phogat, both former Commonwealth champions, from obscurity to wrestling fame.
Starring Aamir Khan as Vinesh’s uncle Mahavir Singh Phogat, who coached the pair as well as setting Vinesh on the road to success, the 2016 film is one of India’s highest-grossing movies of all time.
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Vinesh, who was adopted by her uncle after the death of her father, did not take part in the movie, but she does credit her family along with the Indian federation for helping her recover from the Rio nightmare.
“It is difficult, but if you have to perform as an athlete at the top level then one has to be mentally strong,” Phogat said in an online conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi before leaving for Tokyo.
“Family has a big role to play to push you to that next level. The federation and everybody have worked together, so I believe it’s our duty not to disappoint them.”
Phogat added: “There is a responsibility because I have to finish the work that the family started.
“The dream that started with an Olympic medal will only end when it is fulfilled. The nation’s and family’s hopes are there.”
Mahavir Phogat has said he rates his niece even more highly than his own daughters as a wrestler.
India is getting behind the young athlete as the nation craves an Olympic hero. Boxer Akhil Kumar, who won gold in the 2006 Commonwealth Games, is confident she can deliver.