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From having no motivation to being excited to wrestle, Vinesh Phogat makes progress on the mat

It begins as a self-deprecating joke. But as Vinesh Phogat starts to peel off the layers, she reveals the extremes she had to go to propel her from a dark, deep corner and back into the spotlight on the wrestling mat.

One Saturday, a few months ago, she went out on the 400m track to test her endurance by running as many laps as she could in three minutes, the time duration for one round of a wrestling bout. “I could not even complete one lap! I got so exhausted, I felt like vomiting.” During sparring sessions, wrestlers much smaller and lighter than Vinesh began pummeling her. “Unhone mujhe utha, utha ke maara (They threw me around),” she laughs.

Then, in February, she travelled to Istanbul to take part in the Yasar Dogu International. The former world number one wanted to gauge if she’d have to start from 0 all over again but her findings were far more severe.

The competitive fire within her seemed to have doused. “I was dull. I did not feel anything… haarna hai, jeetna hai, khelne aayi hoon? (win, lose, have I come to compete?) I was confused, in some other world,” she reflects. “If someone took two points against me, then I thought of giving up easily instead of fighting back.”

Vinesh won Monday’s selection trials for the Commonwealth Games, a result she says gives her ‘reassurance and relief’ that ‘everything is on track’. But for months after last year’s Tokyo Olympics, the thought of ‘giving up’ had been a recurring one, which must be frustrating for a wrestler whose game is a lot about chutzpah and doggedness.

For most athletes, the Olympics are the ultimate highlights of their careers. For Vinesh, however, they’ve caused nothing but heartbreaks and miseries.

In Rio, it was the physical pain caused by twisting her knee during a bout. In Tokyo, it was the ‘mental torture’ that undid her. Her campaign ended in the first round, was subsequently sanctioned by the federation for perceived ‘indiscipline’ and, in an emotional piece for The Indian Express, Vinesh narrated how she was left broken after unfair criticism of her performance.

“I had no motivation. I was so tired mentally I thought, chod do sab, nahi karni wrestling. My body wasn’t picking up and mind had given up. Imagine how it must feel if it reaches a stage where an athlete wants to stop doing the only thing she has done all her life?” she says. “But something within me still convinced me to give one more shot. Call it inner voice or whatever… that drive has always been there. So I thought, let’s see where this takes me. Dekhenge kya likh rakha hai kismat ne. (Let us see what fate has to offer)”

It took two months, Vinesh says, to come out of that phase. And several more to return to something that resembled her peak.
A year ago, Vinesh wasn’t the self-doubting, low-on-confidence wrestler that she’d become. She was flying high, beating almost every opponent that stood in her way, winning titles, climbing up the rankings chart and becoming one of the favourites to win a medal in the 53kg category at the Tokyo Games.

On the day of the competition, she lost in the quarterfinals to former world champion Vanesa Kaladzinskaya of Belarus, which sparked criticisms mainly from within the wrestling federation. Vinesh would have given up, she admits, but the thought that the rivals she had consistently beaten before had finished on the podium gave her some confidence to return to the mat. “So I know what my level is. There are some shortcomings, I know. Gir, gir k seekh gaye thoda,” she smiles.

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