Vinesh Phogat ends long layoff with return to mat in Ukraine

Vinesh Phogat's bronze medal at the 2019 World Championships secured her a place at the Tokyo Olympics. AP Photo/Anvar Ilyasov

For someone who's been competing internationally as long as she has, the XXIV Outstanding Ukrainian Wrestlers and Coaches Memorial, which begins in Kiev on Friday, isn't anywhere near the most prestigious tournament Vinesh Phogat has competed in. Yet, the 26-year-old Worlds bronze medallist, who's already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, admitted to butterflies in her stomach before she flew out to Ukraine.

"That nervousness before any competition never really goes away. It doesn't matter how big or small a tournament I'm competing in," she says.

Those pre-competition nerves start out strong each year but usually fade over the course of a season as she gets on the mat a few times. That's not going to be the case when she's coming off a long break, as is the case here -- apart from a long injury layoff in 2016, this is the longest Vinesh has gone without competing.

When she steps on the mat in Kiev on Saturday, Vinesh will be taking part in her first competition since the Asian Championships in New Delhi in February last year. The layoff was initially caused by the coronavirus pandemic that ravaged competition schedules across sport over the whole of 2020. Her training was affected since the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the pandemic in India meant she had to train at her home. Eventually, she fell victim to the virus herself, which further disrupted her training regime.

From steadily building up to what she hoped would be peak physical conditioning in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, Vinesh lost ground drastically. "About half the year, she couldn't use the wrestling mat because of the lockdown. This was a big lag," says her coach Woller Akos.

But what really alarmed him was the physical deterioration he saw in Vinesh after her bout with coronavirus. This wasn't due to the virus itself as much as the precautionary rest Vinesh took. Although initially Vinesh had only mild symptoms, Akos was relieved to find she had none of the long-term damage he had read about and feared she might have suffered. "After her illness, she was examined by professionals and luckily everything with her heart, lungs and other organs were fine," he says.

Vinesh was a long way from competition fitness at that point. Although she was given the opportunity to compete in the individual world cup in Belgrade last year, she opted out on account of her lack of match-readiness. "There were big problems with her anaerobic system. When you compete in a bout, you are mostly using your anaerobic system because you are having high heart rates and using short bursts of energy. This is the first aspect (of her training) that we have needed to correct for the competitions," says Akos.

"That nervousness before any competition never really goes away. It doesn't matter how big or small a tournament I'm competing in." Vinesh Phogat

After working together for a few weeks in India, Akos and Vinesh travelled to Hungary at the end of the year. "It wasn't just to improve my fitness level but also gave me a chance to practise with a lot of competition that I wouldn't get in India," says Vinesh. In Hungary, unlike in India, Vinesh says, opponents tend to focus more on upper-body techniques. "This isn't something that I'm naturally good at. So the more I wrestle in these styles, the more complete a wrestler I can become," she says.

Vinesh trained in Hungary over the month of January, then in Poland for a couple of weeks, but owing to visa formalities, couldn't travel directly to Ukraine for her competition. Although the extended travel wasn't ideal, Akos felt there was no avoiding it. "Her biggest problem has been the lack of competition," he says. There's going to be plenty of that in Kiev. During her time in India, Vinesh says her coach sent her multiple videos from Kiev where he had already travelled to. "He would send me pictures of all the girls who were training there," she says.

Akos is clear that the camp would be useful. "In the Kiev camp, there are more than 115 wrestlers for sparring from 18 countries. For me, it is not important where she's getting this sort of practice. It could be in Europe, Asia or Africa. What is important is to be able to prepare with the best," he says.

There won't be as many wrestlers in the competition itself -- only 22 will be taking part in the women's 53kg division -- but they include some very strong opposition. Current European champion Vanessa Kaladzynskaya of Belarus will be taking part, as will 2018 Worlds bronze medallist Diane Weicker of Canada and Roksana Zasina of Poland, who, like Vinesh, qualified for the Tokyo Olympics at the 2019 Worlds.

Vinesh, who is still not close to full fitness, is understandably wary of these tough matches. "I don't think I'm completely ready for it. But my coach feels it is important for my preparation," she says.

That is coach Akos' assessment as well. The competition in Ukraine will be important not just to shrug off any early rust but also to figure out which areas of her training Vinesh needs to work on ahead of more important competition. That would certainly include the Matteo Pelicone Invitational in the first week of March in Rome, where Vinesh has the chance to earn ranking points that might lead to an easier draw in the Tokyo Olympics.

"All these will come in handy. In wrestling, the hardest thing to make up for are long breaks from the game. Vinesh needs to wrestle with great partners, she needs a lot of high-level matches before Tokyo," says Akos.