Vinesh and Sakshi impress on international return

She might have come close but there would be no fairytale moment for Vinesh Phogat at the Asian Wrestling Championships. Just making it to the stage she did - the final of the 55kg division - was an impressive achievement. The 23 year-old was returning to international competition for the first time since suffering a horrid knee injury at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Turning out in the 55kg category - the heaviest she has ever competed in - put her at a distinct disadvantage. It was a steep obstacle, which she had overcome in two bouts earlier in the day. There would be no happy ending though as she lost 8-4 to Japanese teenager Sae Nanjo.

Even as she returned to the practice hall making sense of her defeat, Vinesh might have caught a glimpse on the wide screen TV next to the practice mat of her teammate and practice partner Sakshi Malik who was sharing a similar fate on the competition mat.

Sakshi was also making her return to international wrestling at the Asian Championships. Having won bronze in the women's 58kg division at Rio, she too was in unfamiliar territory at the Asian Championships, where she was featuring in the 60 kg division. The category - featuring Olympic champion Risako Kawai -- was among the most competitive at the continental tournament.

Facing Kawai in the final, Malik never really got going, she was thrown within the first minute of the contest and eventually lost by technical fall (10-0) inside three minutes.

Later, Vinesh found something to smile about in the two's failed quest to win a maiden Asian Championship gold medal. "Unfortunately it seems wherever we go, we end up with similar medals. When she gets silver, I get a bronze and at other times I finish second and she finishes third. Perhaps at some point we will both be able to finish with a gold," Vinesh said.

If Vinesh believes that the two's fates seem intertwined, that's because so much of their career has been. "When I made my international debut in the Asian Cadet Championships, Sakshi was there too. She was just starting her career too (the Pune tournament in 2009 was only Sakshi's second ever). We have been together for such a long time that we kept bonding with each other," says Vinesh who is a couple of years younger than her teammate.

Indeed the two, as the senior most members of the national camp in Lucknow, now help each other train. "We have been practice partners for a long time now. We compete in very different weight classes and that helps each of us train. Because I am fast, she uses me to improve her speed, and I try to match her strength. And both of us try to motivate each other all the time," explains Vinesh.

After she won a bronze medal at the Olympics, Sakshi would say Vinesh had a role to play too. "I was really upset knowing about her injury. It made me stronger," Sakshi said then. And while the medal catapulted her to instant stardom, Vinesh says little has changed in the relationship between the two.

"Sakshi hasn't changed at all after winning the medal. She likes practicising with me and even as I recovered she would keep calling me. She kept asking me "Kab ham dono practice karenge, kab wapas a rahi ho? (When will you be returning, when will we practice together)," says Vinesh.

While admitting their Japanese opponents were better than them on the day, Vinesh says there are positives to take. "It's not easy to win a silver. The Asian Championships isn't a small tournament. If I could win a silver at a weight division that is so much heavier than my own, I will be able to do so much better when I return to my original category," she says.

She vows both she and Sakshi will be a force to reckon with at the World Championships in August this year. "The Japanese were a lot quicker than us. We were too slow to spot mistakes they made, but they found our weaknesses very quickly. But we will work out these problems. By the World Championships, we will be back at our original weight and we will do much better then," she says.