The first expression on Vinesh Phogat's face after she finally pinned the durable Maria Prevolaraki of Greece on the wrestling mat Wednesday evening in the Kazkah capital of Nur Sultan was that of relief. She had secured a bronze medal at the Wrestling World Championships -- her first ever at this tournament. There was a moment of elation when she held the Indian flag aloft in a lap of honour around the mat and when she held the medal on the podium. When she spoke for the first time after leaving the competition arena, barely blinking back tears, you understood what that medal -- the first she had won in five attempts -- meant to her.
It was a justification for a year of hard choices. She had left the security and comfort of the national camp where she had trained all her life for the solitary pursuit of excellence under a new coach. She had shifted out of a weight division she had competed in all her life -- one which had won her an Asian gold medal just last year -- to a new category where she would face stronger and more experienced rivals.
"Gold hi laga dijiye (Take it as a gold only)," she told reporters. "I've been trying for five years for this medal. This is a very big medal for me."
But the 25-year-old isn't done yet. She reminded everyone that the world medal was just a pit stop on her ultimate goal -- to step on the podium at the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year. Keeping that goal in mind, perhaps Vinesh would value her 8-2 win over USA's Sarah Hildebrandt even more than the bronze medal that she won in the bout that followed that.
By beating Hildebrandt, Vinesh would earn a quota place to compete at the Tokyo Games and perhaps exorcise the demons of the Rio Olympics. She had been one of the favourites there and had been near obsessive with her preparation for that tournament. "The only thing on my mind was wrestling," she says. But in a moment that has played in her mind millions of times since, she had to quit in the quarterfinals after suffering a horrific knee injury. It took her several months of surgery and then recuperation to get close to where she had left off.
At least based on her results over the past couple of days, she's a far superior player than she ever was. In her matches at the World Championships, she beat Rio bronze medallist Sofia Mattsson 13-0, World bronze medallist Yuliya Khalvadzhy 5-0, former World silver medallist Sarah Hildebrandt 8-2 and pinned a two-time world medallist in Prevolaraki. The one loss -- a 7-0 defeat -- came to two-time world champion and eventual silver medallist at Nur Sultan, Mayu Mukaida in the pre-quarterfinals.
There was improvement even in the 7-0 defeat. For Vinesh had competed against Mukaida at the quarterfinals of the Asian Championships where she had conceded a 10-0 technical superiority decision. She had not even been able to make a single attack in that match. In contrast, while failing to score against Mukaida again, she had at least had the opportunity to make two attacks.
This might seem like a trifling positive and even today it's clear that Vinesh is a level below the Japanese wrestler. Mukaida in turn seems to be a step behind the gold standard North Korean Pak Jong Mi who beat her 12-1 in the final.
But Vinesh can take heart. While she's clearly not good enough to step on the very top of the podium, she is already good enough to beat every other wrestler in the 53kg category. And she's only improving. "It's only been 10 months in this new category and I've already won a medal," she said.
She has another 10 months to the Olympic Games.
There are definite areas of improvement. Vinesh would be the first to admit that she needs to get physically stronger in order to better escape Mukaida's leg attacks. She also needs to improve her ground game -- something Indians have traditionally struggled with. Coach Woller Akos has admitted that Vinesh needed to transition more of her takedowns into further point-scoring opportunities, but most of her points were scored through takedowns alone.
It's not an assured conclusion for Vinesh. But she only needs to take inspiration from another wrestler at the World Championships she has a winning record against. It's none other than Jong Mi herself. Back in 2014, she had lost a 3-1 decision to the Indian in the first round of the 48kg category at the Asian Championships while finishing seventh out of 10 participants. In 2019, Jong Mi dropped all of three points as she stormed to the world title.
Vinesh certainly knows she has that ability to improve as well. And that certainly will be the goal over the months that remain to the Olympics. Vinesh says that herself. "I hope what I left in Rio, I will take in Tokyo," she said.