For most of her life Sangeeta Phogat has understandably had to live in the shadow of her illustrious siblings. At 19 years old, she is the youngest of the six Phogat sisters. Understandably, given her age, she is also the least accomplished. Of the other five, three are Olympians, while together they have won two World Championships medals and nine Asian Championships medals. Each of them has been a national champion. Not Sangeeta though, whose best is a silver at last year's competition.
Yet on Monday evening at the Pro Wrestling League, Sangeeta made a confident step to claim her space as a high-quality wrestler in her own right. Representing Delhi Sultans, she beat reigning world champion Vanesa Kaladzinskaya of UP Dangal, 7-4.
Kaladzinskaya might argue there were mitigating factors in her loss. She was at a size disadvantage competing in the 57kg division category, two weight classes above the one in which she had won a gold at the Worlds in Paris. Yet earlier in the competition she had beaten Odunayo Adekueroye, who had also won a world silver in a category heavier than hers (55kg).
It was a win that drew praise from Vinesh and Geeta -- Sangeeta's sisters -- who were competing for the opposing side. "We actually thought Vanesa was going to win, but Sangeeta wrestled really well," said Vinesh. "We were confused who to support. We wanted to support Vanesa because she was from our team but at the same time we were really happy for Sangeeta."
While the victory might have come as a surprise to her sisters, Sangeeta says she had been preparing hard to giver herself her best shot. "I just wanted to give a hundred per cent," she says. "I knew she was a world champion and that the bout would be very tough, but I was confident I could beat her. I had seen her bout and her technique in her last match and I felt I could take her."
"I had never beaten a world champion at any level before this. This will motivate me to do well at the Asian Games."
What was particularly impressive about Sangeeta's win was that she kept her cool after being thrown early in the bout, recovering from a 0-4 deficit after the first half a minute before rallying for the victory. Remarkably, at no point of the bout, after first being taken down, did Sangeeta look at a disadvantage against Kaladzinskaya. She went into the lead with a slick leg-sweep takedown and then defended calmly till the final whistle was blown a minute later.
And while growing up she has had the opportunity to learn from among the best women's wrestlers in the country, Sangeeta says she benefited from picking the brains of her competitors in the PWL. Later on Monday evening, she would ask Bekzhod Abdurahmanov when he would be training the next morning. Abdurahmanov isn't the only wrestler Sangeeta says she was looking to learn from.
"I got a chance to train with [UP Dangal wrestler and 2017 European 76kg women's champion] Zsanett Nemeth," says Sangeeta. "She gave me tips on how to improve my khemi (a sort of headlock). [Olympic and World gold medallist] Helen Maroulis was very supportive too. She helped me to improve my leg defence."
The advice Maroulis gave wasn't just restricted to defence. "Helen told me I needed to be much more aggressive," says Sangeeta. "That is a very American way of wrestling but I wrestled like that today and it worked for me."
Sangeeta now hopes her win over Kaladzinskaya can be the start of a run that will see her eventually match or even improve on her older sisters' achievements. "This year I haven't been able to qualify for the Commonwealth Games but now my confidence has increased a lot because of this win," she says. "I had never beaten a world champion at any level before this. This will motivate me to do well at the Asian Games."