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With fear gone, 'hungry' Vinesh Phogat raring for return to competition

SANJAY KANOJIA/AFP/Getty Images

Vinesh Phogat is remarkably relaxed on Thursday, a day before her campaign begins at the Asian Wrestling Championships. The 22-year-old jokes and play tussles with her teammates, on a practice mat at New Delhi's KD Jadhav stadium. It is an unusual sight, not just because Vinesh is making her international comeback following a particularly graphic knee injury in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics.

Follow the sport long enough and you will know wrestlers are at their crankiest the day before their contest when they have to make weight. In the days leading up to the competition, they progressively deprive themselves of food and liquid as they try to squeeze into as light a weight category as would give them the most advantage once they rehydrate back to their natural weight for the competition. Vinesh knows this ritual. She has for long been India's mainstay in the 48kg division - the lightest in women's wrestling. "Before a competition, I'd just like to be left alone," she once said.

But if the 2014 Commonwealth gold medalist seems so amiable, that's because for once in her career, Vinesh isn't fighting hunger pangs and her body and mind can focus on the wrestling. On Friday, Vinesh will wrestle in the women's 55kg division - her highest ever. "Among the hardest things to do is cut weight," says Vinesh, who last year even failed to make weight for an Olympic qualifier. "For the first time, I'm going for a competition and maze se khaate peete jaaungi (I will eat and drink without worry). Normally when you cut, you lose a lot of energy. So it's fun to have so much energy before a competition," she says.

There is a definite advantage to being the biggest competitor in a division, which Vinesh is only competing in out of necessity. After her injury at the Rio Games and subsequent surgery, Vinesh was advised, in no uncertain terms, not to attempt a weight cut until her knee was strong enough. "Whenever you lose weight quickly, your body picks up injuries and illnesses very easily so I was told to stay close to my natural bodyweight," says Vinesh, who normally weighs around 54kg.

Vinesh is aware of the challenges of competing against wrestlers who will be bigger than her. She won a silver the one time she competed in the 48kg division at the Asian Championships (2015) but settled for bronze when she competed in the 51kg (2013) and 53kg (2016) divisions. "It has always been my strength that I was able to cut weight and still make the 48kg division. I've always been the biggest wrestler then [in the 48kg division]. I've competed in the 53kg division before but this will be very hard for me," she admits.

Despite competing in a relatively modest field, Vinesh is unassuming about her expectations and says she hopes to return to her favoured weight class. "I hope I will be able to reach the finals but actually I doesn't matter what medal I win. If I do well, it will give me confidence that if I am able to win a medal in Asia at 55, then I will be very strong in 48kg," she says.

Indeed, Vinesh says it was important for her simply to contest the continental tournament. After the surgery and recuperation, when she wasn't even allowed to train, Vinesh says she went through a period of dejection. "For a couple of months, I felt that I had lost everything. That even if I returned to wrestling, I wouldn't be at my best and that I would forget all my movements. I was afraid if I returned, I would get injured all over again," she says.

It was then that Olympic medalist Yogeshwar Dutt gave her some handy advice. "He said that fear I had would disappear if I had something to focus on. In my case it was the Asian Championships. That was all I had in my mind for eight months," she says.

As part of her preparation for the tournament, Vinesh participated in and won a national-level tournament in Ambala last month. "It was just an India-level competition. But it was important for me so that my fear went. When you return, even a small competition feels like a big one. I was able to leave my fear behind at Ambala," she says.

There is little fear now. Either for the Asian Championships or for the World Championships later this year in August. "I feel confident that I am at the level where I had left off. I think I will be even better at the World Championships because I will be back at my natural bodyweight," she says.

At what is essentially the start of a new Olympic cycle, Vinesh says she is looking to carry on from before and feels, once again, a familiar hunger. "I'm feeling the same way as I did last year when I was looking to qualify for the Olympics. Koi bhi aa jaye, kha jaaungi (I'm so pumped, I feel I could devour anyone who stands in my way). Now that feeling has only grown," she says.