Olympic delay means new mother Geeta Phogat can dream of Tokyo again

Geeta Phogat says it never even crossed her mind that she was going to quit wrestling. Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

If her social media feed is anything to go by, it's apparent Geeta Phogat is enjoying motherhood. Scroll through her Instagram feed and the vast majority of pictures are updates of her now eight-month-old son Arjun. But in recent weeks, the first Indian woman wrestler to win a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games has also been adding, ever more frequently, pictures of the training hall.

While the postponement of the Olympics came as a setback to many of India's athletes, it has opened an opportunity for Phogat. Completely out of contention at the start of the year, the 31-year-old now believes she stands a chance to make it to Tokyo next year. "I'd never taken any decision to stop wrestling or quit it. The Olympics have been postponed so I have another opportunity, I have another year," she says.

Phogat isn't the first Indian woman athlete to attempt to return to her sport after motherhood. Boxer Mary Kom famously won her Olympic bronze medal in 2012, three years after she gave birth to the last of her three children. There are also a few Indian wrestlers who have continued to compete post-motherhood. Phogat's goal isn't just to come back though, it's to qualify for the Olympics for the second time in her career.

This is a steep challenge and even she admits it. "When I say I have a year to go to the Olympics, it seems like a lot of time. But when it comes to actually doing it, I realise there's so much work to be done," she says. To begin with, she is nowhere near competition or even partial fitness. Phogat competed in the women's 58kg category but had gained nearly 30 kg over the course of her pregnancy. "I'd spent a lot of time in bed after Arjun's birth. I'd been eating well but not been doing any workouts so I put on a lot of weight," she says.

"When I do return, there will be a lot of expectations on me. There will be a lot of younger girls too. I'll have to understand and deal with new techniques." Geeta Phogat

Phogat always knew that she would be returning to the mat. "It never even crossed my mind that I was going to quit. Even when I couldn't wrestle over the last few months, I'd go and watch my old wrestling videos and look at pictures of myself training or on the mat. I missed wrestling tremendously. It's a good thing that there are no tournaments going on right now because otherwise I'd have missed the sport even more," she says.

While she looked to return to the mat, Phogat knew she was going to be tested "I knew it would be hard. I would look at the weight machine every other day and watch the numbers going up each time. I knew that if I had to wrestle again, I had to wrestle at the old weight category itself. But I knew that if it was just about hard work, I would be able to do it," she says.

Even knowing so, her drop-off in fitness took her by surprise. "I started walking and jogging about a couple of months ago. Even that was hard. It felt like someone had tied a weight on my body. I went to the wrestling mat just out of habit and tried to do a front roll -- that's a sort of warm-up routine for wrestlers. I was so out of shape, I couldn't run or even bend. Now it's a lot better. I can run, cycle and do cardio. I've lost 15 kilos already but I have another 15 to lose by the next couple of months. I will have to bring up my fitness levels as well. So a lot of things have to change. The target is to be ready for the Olympic qualifying round or the nationals or whichever is the next tournament. The next six months are very important for me," she says.

She has drawn support from her immediate family in Kharkhoda village in Haryana's Sonepat district. "They not only tell me I can do it but that I have to do it. If I don't wrestle, what will I be doing?" she says. Even little Arjun, she says, has been supportive. "It's a little difficult right now because I'm still feeding him. Once I start weaning him off in another two months I think, I'll find it easier to train too. He isn't very naughty so he's encouraging me in his own way," she says.

Even so, Phogat knows her comeback isn't simply a matter of regaining fitness. She's looking to return to the 62kg division, in which India has both a former Olympic medallist (Sakshi Malik) and a junior world champion (Sonam Malik) -- both already competing for an Olympic quota. "When I do return, there will be a lot of expectations on me. Wherever I go, they will want me to win. There will be a lot of younger girls too. I'll have to understand and deal with new techniques," she says.

But Phogat is confident she will overcome these challenges when she has to. She has been told as much by women who have already walked the path she intends to. Among her friends on Instagram is Mariya Stadnik (three-time Olympic medallist and mother of three) and Natalia Vorobyeva (2012 Olympic champion and mother of one). "I spoke to Mariya on Instagram. She messaged me and said this would be a great journey. She told me not to worry and that I would come back stronger than ever. Natalia told me the same thing -- that after having a baby they felt they were physically and mentally stronger," she says.

Phogat says she has found her mental approach changing. "Wrestling is an individual sport and in the past I'd be focused entirely on myself before a tournament. Now I want Arjun to see me win," she says. She hopes to change other people's mindsets too. "Some days ago I went to my father's village and one of my relatives told me I must quit wrestling and that I'd done enough wrestling already. I told her I wasn't done yet and that I have another five years to go," she says.

Phogat insists she doesn't see such attitudes negatively. "I get motivated to prove these beliefs wrong. But I also see it as a progression. First they didn't allow women to wrestle in India. Then they said women shouldn't wrestle after marriage. Then it was you should stay home after kids. But it's up to us to change these mindsets," she says.