Vinesh Phogat scripts her own redemption story

A Chinese reporter in the wrestling hall of the Jakarta Convention center is searching for colour in his daily report. He seemed to have found it in an Indian woman - Vinesh Phogat - who had just won gold for her country in the 50kg event. Something about the name of the first Indian woman to have won an Asian gold seems familiar to him. He opens Baidu on his laptop and sees a picture of the Chinese language poster of the film 'Dangal'. The Aamir Khan biopic on the Phogat sisters and their father was a surprise hit in China last year.

"Is that her?" he asks.

Not those Phogats, he is told. They are actually actors depicting her cousins Geeta and Babita. When the movie was thought of a couple of years ago, Vinesh was just one of the seven Phogat sisters. Her accomplishments then perhaps did not warrant a place in the script as much as her elders who won some of India's earliest, and most important, international medals.

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But who can now argue that Vinesh Phogat does not deserve a movie of her own? She is not one of the Phogat sisters anymore. She is the Phogat sister. Hers is the perfect comeback story. An athlete with great talent, laid low just as she was poised to make the jump to greatness. Dark days of struggle followed. Then on Monday came the moment of redemption.

No Indian woman had ever won a gold medal at the Asian Games, before the 24-year-old Vinesh clinched victory on Monday. It's likely few will ever win it in more emphatic fashion. Vinesh dropped all of four points over the course of her 17-minute campaign against opponents. Only two of her wins even went the six minute distance.

The first one was poetic justice, for it came against China' Sun Yanan. Two years ago, at the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics, it was the bout against Yanan which set in motion Vinesh's entire saga of struggle and redemption. With multiple medals at the Asian level, Yanan was considered the standard bearer of the women's division.

The bout and seemingly, her career, had ended abruptly with an agonising injury. Vinesh had lunged and Yanan defended. In the ensuing tangle of limbs, Vinesh's knee twisted until nearly every one of the ligaments on her left knee snapped. A very public injury, viewed by millions on TV, was followed by a very lonely rehabilitation.

"At that time I felt my wrestling career was over. I had seen people who had that injury and had struggled to return. I felt it would be the same with me," Vinesh had said.

Rehabilitation over the course of nine months would be a slow and doubt-filled process. Those were dark days. It was depressing for Vinesh to even appear in public on a wheelchair. It took every ounce of her monumental self-belief to get her though it.

"If outsiders could only understand the effort that goes into a comeback like this, they would appreciate it for more than that, it shows the character of the athlete," says Wayne Lombard, a current physiotherapist with the Indian hockey team who had worked with Vinesh during her rehabilitation.

Vinesh eventually did get through the toughest period of her career. "Injury is hard for every athlete. It's hard both physically and emotionally to come back from injury. But they say sometimes injury makes you stronger. I think that was true for me."

This Vinesh, stronger than the one that had first been injured, is a truly formidable opponent. She was always imbued with belief in her own potential. In a sport that has no shortage of cliques, she is known to stand confidently on her own.

"A lot of wrestlers in India listen to too many people and speak through too many voices. Vinesh always knew what she wanted. She would speak in just that voice," says an associate who has known the wrestler for many years.

What Vinesh wanted was a gold medal. And it wasn't enough that they came at the Commonwealth Games with their easy draws. The challenge had to be bested at the Asian Games. She had come close many times, falling just short twice in as many years at the 2017 and 2018 Asian Championships. Not this time.

"I had won a lot of silvers. Each time I had won a silver. My target at the Asian Games was gold," she said on Monday.

The Asian Games aren't the Olympics, but they aren't much less either. "This competition was like a second Olympics for me," Vinesh said. She wouldn't leave anything to chance. Leaving the national camp after calling it out for its lack of proper training facilities, she headed to train separately in Hungary under Woller Akos, a man who had coached his wife to the world title.

Vinesh chose to compete separately too. She competed in and won the Spanish Grand Prix. When the rest of the Indian team travelled to the prestigious Yasar Dogu competition in Turkey, she opted out, choosing instead to rest.

Those were choices that might have rubbed the authorities the wrong way but Vinesh was adamant in the wisdom of her decisions. On Monday, that belief was amply rewarded. It was Yanan who was gasping under the strain of an elbow twisted to provide leverage on the ground. There was no lasting damage apart from a 2-8 scoreline. Two time Olympian Kim Hyung-joo was dispatched 11-0 in a little over a minute. Uzebekistan's Dauletbike Yakshimuratova was trounced 10-0 in as much time.

If Vinesh had stopped right here and settled for a silver medal, she would still have received high praise. But standing between her and history was Japan's Yukie Erie, and Vinesh wasn't going to fall short at the final hurdle.

Just the fact that Erie was Japanese should have been enough to throw off Vinesh; before Monday, no Indian woman had ever even beaten a Japanese wrestler at the Asian Games.

In the end, Erie only barely lasted the duration of the bout. Vinesh moved slick and fast. She darted in and out, searching for and finding openings with ease. Within the first couple of minutes, Erie was trailing 4-0, with one shoulder on the mat and the other barely above it. She would recover but never manage to score a point of her own creation. When Erie pushed for an opening, Vinesh's knee, two years ago strapped to a splint as she wailed in agony, was strong and resolute.

With the gold around her neck, the national flag around her shoulders and tears in her eyes, it is as compelling a visual as any to wrap this tale up. But that for an Indian fan is the best part. There are bigger prizes on the horizon. And unlike a movie that has to end on a single high, there are no reasons to suggest there won't be further sequels to this real life tale of triumph.