As one of the pioneers of women's wrestling in India, there's no shortage of achievements for Geeta Phogat. Her medal cabinet can attest to that fact. There's that gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games - the first for a woman wrestler in India - one that inspired a blockbuster film and a generation of young wrestlers. There's a bronze medal won at the Worlds. There's also historic Olympic participation.
Amongst that rich haul, it's hard to imagine a silver medal from a non-Olympic weight division at the national championships, claimed after being blanked 8-0 in the finals, featuring very prominently. But for Phogat, the medal she claimed at the National Championships in Gonda on Friday is still a significant one. "If I had to rank all my medals I'm not sure, but it's an important one," she says. She's not sure though whether her son, two-year old Arjun, will understand the significance. "He'll think it's some kind of toy," she says.
The medal was the first won by Phogat since 2017, in what was also her first national-level competition, since becoming a mother a couple of years back.
Phogat isn't the first sportswoman or even wrestler to return to high level competition post motherhood. Mariya Stadnik won a couple of Olympic medals after becoming a mother of two. Within India, Anita Sheoran too won a national title in 2019 after the birth of her son.
Phogat says she took inspiration from both of them, but she had her own challenges to overcome as well.
"I'd put on a lot of weight during my pregnancy. I was nearly 80 kilos at one point. I knew getting back to competition weight would be really a lot of hard work, " says Phogat had competed in the 55kg division at the Olympics in 2012.
But Phogat says she never doubted she would compete again. "I never had a moment where I thought now I should not return to competition. I always knew I would return. If I had a serious injury, perhaps it would be different. But wrestling is something that makes me happy. Hard work is something I don't mind doing for something I love," she says.
While she had no problem doing the hard yards, the three years away from the game made things a little tricky.
"Normally, when you take time away from the sport, you give your injuries a chance to recover. But because I was training while also carrying a lot of weight, that always increases the chances of getting hurt. Your body doesn't always respond to what your mind wants you to do, " she says.
Prior to competing at the nationals, Phogat injured her fingers during a practise session. But there was no plan of missing the competition.
"When you miss three years of competition, you lose touch with what's the level the current set of wrestlers are training at. Since I wasn't in the national camp, I was only training with men's wrestlers. I knew that there were a lot of very strong young wrestlers coming up but since I'd never practised against them, I didn't know what my own level was. Thats why I had to take part at the nationals," she says.
At the level just shy of the elite, Phogat proved she was still able to be competitive. In her semifinal against Bhagyashree, she was up against a promising talent who had represenged India at the Junior Worlds this year and one who was just six-years old when Phogat won her first national title in 2007.
Phogat wasn't always the sharpest in her attack but was able to nullify Bhagyashree's own offense, preventing the Maharashtra wrestler from completing a single takedown.
But Phogat's lack of competitive practise showed in the final against Sarita Mor, a bronze medalist at the world Championships this year. The last time the two competed at the national stage was in the final of the 2017 Nationals, where Phogat had won 7-5.
This time, though, Phogat was unable to score a single point as Mor completed a 8-0 rout.
"I wasn't able to perform as I had thought. It wasn't a question of stamina. I just didn't have enough technical skill at this match. But I'm aware of what I need to work on," she says.
Despite the loss, Phogat has qualified for the Commonwealth Championships. She will have to pay for her own travel since the federation has announced only the gold medal winner will be funded. She still plans to go though. "Right now, I need to get as much competition as possible. My goal isn't just the Commonwealth Championships but also the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games next year and also the Paris Olympics," she says.
While the result in Gonda isnt the one she wanted, it's still whetted her appetite for more. "Once I started competing, I realised why I missed it so much. I missed the atmosphere. I missed the feeling of preparing for a tournament. That's something I enjoy. I want to do that as long as I can," she says.