Vinesh Phogat sat on a wheelchair, her right leg in plaster, as her physiotherapist wheeled her out of the Etihad Airways flight. The 21-year-old wrestler had to be moved to one side to make way for Sakshi Malik, the bronze medallist at the Rio Olympics, who was showered with flower petals by officials on their arrival at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport. The celebrations, complete with sweets and music, continued as Malik, flanked by Haryana’s sports minister Anil Vij and officials from the state, soaked it all in.
Phogat, meanwhile, sat in her wheelchair, tears rolling down her cheeks. “Vinesh doesn’t cry, Vinesh is strong, right?” her physio comforted her. Phogat forced herself to nod; the wrestler who went to Brazil as a strong medal contender had to be carried on a stretcher after a freak knee injury in her quarter-final bout.
“Gayaa, sab gayaa (Over, it’s all over),” was her first thought when she sustained that injury in August, she says. The first point of the 48kg freestyle quarter-final bout went to the 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Indian. But China’s Sun Yanan hit back with a takedown that would fetch her two points. And then she pinned Phogat down in an awkward position that left the latter’s right knee injured. Phogat grimaced in pain, and had to eventually forfeit the fight at 1-2.
“My back was fine, but I just couldn’t move my leg,” she recalls as she trains at the national camp in Lucknow. “I had no idea what was happening. I remember telling the doctors to give me a painkiller so that I could go back inside and finish my fight.”
Nine months after she sustained the injury, Phogat is ready to attempt an international comeback.
But the pain is still fresh. “As I waited with the medical team, I found out after a few hours that Sakshi (Malik) was fighting for a medal. I cheered for her. But the moment I was alone in the room, I couldn’t stop my tears,” says the Balali girl, a cousin of Geeta and Babita, the famous Phogat sisters.
Back in India, it was only when surgeon Dinshaw Pardiwala, of Mumbai’s Kokilaben Dhirubhai Ambani Hospital, told her she had suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear that she realized the extent of her injury.
“I honestly didn’t think I would be able to return to the wrestling mat ever,” Phogat admits. She even refused to go to New Delhi to receive her Arjuna Award from the President in August. “No way was I going to accept the award sitting on a wheelchair,” she says.
But she did. And the loudest cheers were reserved for the moment when President Pranab Mukherjee climbed down three steps to hand it to her.
In those difficult days, she found comfort in talking to fellow wrestler Somvir Rathee, whom she recently called her “best friend and love of her life” on social media. Phogat and Rathee, a 75kg Greco-Roman wrestler, met at the national championships (2011-2012).
“I really thought it (the injury at Rio) was the end of my career,” says Phogat, “but he was the one person who always backed me.”
The road to recovery after the knee surgery was a long one. A team of experts from JSW, Phogat’s sponsors, suggested she should go for rehab at the JSW Sports Excellence Centre in Bengaluru. She had to begin from scratch. “We had to put together a protocol for her, and the main idea was always to ensure there is no further damage,” says Donavan Pillai, head of sports science and medicine with the JSW Sports team.
Born into the famous Phogat family of wrestlers, Vinesh was pushed into the sport even though tennis was her first love. “I had been a wrestler since I was 7,” she says. “And suddenly I was not wrestling. I used to see my wrestling shoes in a corner of the room every day, and get angry that I could do nothing with them.”
The recovery started with light stretches, basic knee work, arm work, then, gradually, some shadow wrestling. “She’s so driven that you need to police her,” Pillai says. “You can understand she has missed being on the mat, so she wants to give her all. We had to hold her back and explain why she needed to be slow with this.”
In January, Phogat returned to the national camp in Lucknow, under the constant supervision of a physio from the JSW team. “I was actually surprised to see her at the camp,” says national women’s wrestling coach Kuldeep Yadav. On her return, Phogat took to wrestling like she had never been away. “It’s not that she had forgotten how to wrestle because she was out for four-five months. But I was surprised by her stamina even after the gap,” says Yadav.
In March, she competed at the Bharat Kesari Dangal in Ambala, a national-level tournament, in the 53kg category, and won gold. “Since I was recovering from a big surgery, I couldn’t afford to lose weight. It would weaken my muscles further. That’s why I competed in the 53kg category (and not in her regular 48kg event).”
After an exposure trip to Bulgaria last month, Phogat is now ready for her international comeback, at the Asian Championships in New Delhi from 10-14 May, where she will be fighting in the 55kg category. The competition will be a good platform to gauge her form and fitness as she gears up for the World Championships being held by United World Wrestling in August.