Heroes & Inspirations

Rio Olympics: Wrestler Vinesh Phogat, the girl who laughed too much

Author Roopa Pai introduces us to young, Instagram-ing badass Vinesh Phogat, who knows how to turn a loss into victory.

Author Roopa Pai introduces us to young, Instagram-ing badass Vinesh Phogat, who knows how to turn a loss into victory.

(Published with permission from Roopa Pai, who first wrote this post on her Facebook wall. Photos courtesy Vinesh’s Facebook page)

Vinesh Phogat-FB5-cropInstagram meme: Girls be like ‘Usne mera msg seen karne ke 2 mins baad reply diya; Main usse 5 min baad reply karungi’.

Accompanying caption: Today’s generation be like… tit for tat. 😉 😉 😛

Posted by: Vinesh Phogat, 21, freestyle wrestler from village Ballali, district Bhiwani, Haryana. Qualifier for the Rio Olympics in the 48 kg category.

Vinesh Phogat has always been something of a badass. She was born in 1994, but as her Instagram posts and interviews reveal, has all the world-conquering confidence and angst-ridden entitlement of a typical Indian post-millennial teenager. She laughs a lot, is quick to anger, and is always ready to oblige anyone she thinks deserves it with the sharp side of her tongue. Invariably, she errs on the side of irreverence, and demands (and usually gets) what she believes is her due. In short, she behaves like one of the pampered younger siblings in a family of six sisters surrounded by several loving, nurturing adults who have always believed that their girls were as good as anyone else in the world. Which is exactly what she is.

Think Haryana, and the words ‘khap panchayat’, ‘terrible sex ratios’ and ‘rampant patriarchy’ are the ones that leap to mind. But it was the same Haryana that spawned the now-legendary grappler-coach Mahavir Singh Phogat, who wrestled long-held prejudices to the ground by single-handedly creating an A-squad of outstanding wrestlers, all of them female. And all, because no one had the courage at first to send him their girls to train, his own flesh and blood.

Mahavir’s effort paid off in spades. His eldest daughter, Geeta Phogat, was India’s first female wrestler to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, but she was already a legend by then, having won the gold at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, becoming the first Indian female wrestler to achieve the feat. His second, Babita Kumari (who will open her campaign at Rio tonight) won silver at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in her category and gold at the 2014 edition in Glasgow. His third, Ritu, is well on her way to becoming a star wrestler herself, while another daughter, Sangita, and his youngest, a son, Modu, are still in training.

Mahavir’s nieces, our girl Vinesh and her sister Priyanka, were drawn willy-nilly into their uncle’s akhara when their father passed away suddenly several years ago. It wasn’t a life Vinesh enjoyed at all in the beginning. Sure, the successes of her older sisters were inspiring, and they had certainly made her life as a female wrestler a lot easier; people no longer dissed the strictly-business, boyish crew-cut they all wore, and everyone had got used to the sight of a sweaty, shorts-clad Phogat girl wrestling boys in a mud pit. But Mahavir was a hard taskmaster, demanding that the girls turn up at the akhara at the stroke of 4 each morning, not allowing them phones, and insisting on the kind of focus and dedication that didn’t add up to a fun life.

Vinesh PhogatEverything changed, however, when Vinesh began to compete. She had always been recognised as a rather special talent, but as the months rolled by and she went from victory to victory, it began to seem, and to no one more than herself, that she was invincible.
The revolutionary new idea that Vinesh Phogat could be beaten first took root only in 2010, when she lost in the finals of the Asian Cadet (under 16) Championships to a Japanese wrestler. The realisation stunned her, and only made her more determined to win. She began to rack up international successes, winning a bronze in the Asian Wrestling Championships and a silver in the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships, both in 2013, a bronze in the Incheon Asian Games in 2014, and a gold at the Commonwealth Games the same year.

Through all the work it took to get there, however, Vinesh did not stop laughing. She laughed on the mat during practice sessions, inviting the censure of coaches and managers who thought she wasn’t taking her sport seriously. She laughed with her male counterparts over lunch at the coaching camps, annoying those who believed she should only hang out with her squad of women wrestlers. She laughed when people told her that her life had to be about wrestling, and wrestling only; the world was too beautiful, and Instagram too much fun, to limit herself like that. She laughed, rubbing her hands in anticipation, when the qualifying rounds for the Rio Olympics began, confident that they would be a breeze. After all, she was going for Olympic gold.

Vinesh Phogat-FB2And then, suddenly, inexplicably, agonisingly, Vinesh began to lose. She did not make the top six at the World Championships in September 2015, losing her first chance to qualify for Rio. In March 2016, she failed to make the finals of the Asian Wrestling Championships and missed out on an Olympic berth again. Vinesh was shattered. If she couldn’t even qualify for the Olympics, how could she dream of Olympic gold? Riven by doubt and self-loathing, she set to work even harder. But an unprecedented disaster awaited her in April in the next qualifier in Mongolia—she weighed in at 400 gm over the 48-kilo limit for her category, and was disqualified.

The murmurs that had begun in September within the wrestling fraternity back home exploded into full-scale criticism and accusations. Vinesh was not serious about the Olympics, they raged. They had always known it, she laughed too much. Someone else should get a chance to try for a place at Rio, they insisted.

Vinesh Phogat-FB3Vinesh stopped laughing, she cried a lot. She begged that the Wrestling Federation of India give her one last chance to qualify at Istanbul in May. She promised, rashly, that she would win that Olympic spot or quit wrestling forever. Once WFI had agreed—and how could they not, when the gap between her and her closest Indian rival in the category was so vast—she began to train again. She was mad at herself for botching her previous bouts, and she channelled all that anger into her training. It worked. Vinesh beat all contenders at Istanbul to win the gold. She was going to Rio!

Tonight, at 7:02 pm IST, Vinesh Phogat will begin her campaign for an Olympic podium finish, a living testament to what a fond father-figure and demanding coach who beats you with a stick when you skive off training as a 12-year-old, yelling “How will you win an Olympic medal if you train like this?” can help a girl achieve.

Roopa Pai(About the author: History buff, computer engineer and writer, Roopa Pai has lived, worked, and travelled in three continents, writing for some of India’s best known publications. She has written over 20 books, which include the 8-part fantasy-adventure series Taranauts for kids, bestseller The Gita for Children and a biography of Chanakya—The Master Statesman for adults. She also has an alternate career as a tour guide with BangaloreWalks, a heritage walks and tours company.)

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