Strict coach, stricter regimen create Vinesh Phogat 2.0

Vinesh Phogat says it took her two months to make the decision to move up to the 53kg division. Simon Hofmann/Getty Images for Laureus

About a fortnight ago, with the clock counting down to the Wrestling World Championships, you would have found Vinesh Phogat in a good space. Specifically in the weight-training hall at the Partap Sports School in the village of Kharkhoda, Haryana. She's the only wrestler here, for the rest of the Indian team is training at the national camp in Lucknow. A couple of schoolgirls muck around doing handstands in one corner, but they don't bother her. She hums along to the Arijit Singh song playing on her phone even as she squats under the barbell. When she returns to her marital home a short walk away from the school, she won't be too concerned about the ghee-soaked rotis she will tuck into. Come evening, there isn't much mat training to be done. Not at least until the week before her competition, according to her personal coach Woller Akos. He hopes to whet her appetite for something bigger. He wants her sharp and 'ready to bite' at the World Championships.

The World Championships at Nur Sultan in Kazakhstan are an important pit stop for Vinesh even as she prepares for her ultimate goal at the Tokyo Olympics. She's undoubtedly India's best women's wrestler at the moment and the best prospect to medal or at least win an Olympic quota. Four Indian women have medalled at the World Championships before her but none in a pre-Olympic year with a quota on the line. Vinesh has more than a fair shot at improving that statistic.

She will step onto the mat there, sixth in the UWW rankings with just one unavenged loss -- to Japanese world champion Mayu Mukaida -- to prospective competitors in Kazakhstan. Meanwhile, she has beaten world bronze medallist Qianyu Pang, world silver medallist Sarah Hildebrandt and Olympic bronze medallist Sofia Mattson this season. She has won bronze at the Asian Championships, gold at the prestigious Yasar Dogu, Poland Open and Spain Open and a pair of silver medals at the Dan Kolov and Medved internationals.

This has been a year of tremendous success, but it has also been one of immense change for the 25-year-old. She's married now. She moved up from the 48kg and 50kg weight divisions she'd enjoyed all her success in, to the 53kg category. She has stepped away from the familiarity of the national camp in Lucknow to an entirely individual approach with Akos. Where once she was testy in the run-up to big events, she's calm. She has even changed the kind of music she works out to -- before Arjit's soulful tunes, her playlist was pulsing pop.

Of the decisions that she made, the most significant has been the one to train under Akos. She wasn't a stranger to the 34-year-old Hungarian who had coached his own wife to a World Championship gold medal in 2011. Akos had worked with Vinesh for a month as she prepared for the Asian Games last year. While she competed in Jakarta, he had analysed her opponents on TV and then relayed instructions to her over WhatsApp, tactics that had proved decisive as she upset Japan's Yuki Irie to win gold.

The Asiad gold might have been the clincher but Vinesh had already decided she had to work with him. It drew snarky assessment from her fellow campers. "Before the Asian Games, there was a lot of girls who said, 'Let's see how Vinesh does outside,'" she says. "But that didn't bother me. This Olympic cycle was important. I wanted to do something different so I had to take this chance."

Of their first meeting in 2018, Akos recalls a wrestler racked by self-doubt. "If the newspapers said she was doing badly, she would take it to heart. 'I'm doing this wrong, I could improve this. This can be better,'" he recalls her saying. But he was also stunned by her talent. "She knows everything about wrestling. Her feeling on the mat is the best in the world. Most wrestlers will wrestle in predictable ways. Vinesh has the ability to do something that's untaught and unexpected." Equally surprising to him was Vinesh's winless record at the world level, but that was soon explained. "At first I wondered how she hadn't won a world medal. But I understood why after I saw the system she had worked in."

Akos bluntly says there was no semblance of a structured programme in India. "They mixed everything up," he says. "One day they did speed exercises, the next day, anaerobic system, then strength system. It didn't make any sense." Vinesh's training over the course of this year, in contrast, has been plotted down to the individual training session on an Excel document in Akos' laptop. Two-week brackets of aerobic training are followed by four of anaerobic training where she will push her heart rate to the limit. "Everything he makes me do is connected to what I will do on the mat in a competition," says Vinesh. "Everything has to be explosive because that is the sort of power we need in competition."

If Akos was methodical, he expected the same by way of dedication from Vinesh. This would be new for her. "In India, if you are senior enough and don't want to train, coaches will say, 'OK, beta, go and rest,'" says Vinesh. "But that's not the same with coach Akos. I have to be on the mat with my shoes on at 4.50pm for a 5pm session. If I am late by two minutes, he'll tap at his watch and give me the silent treatment."

She knew that things would be different when she travelled to Hungary to train with Akos for the first time this year in February. "I reached Budapest airport at 2pm after a 12-hour journey," she says. "Coach met me there. And he said we had a training session at 4pm. And I went, 'What? It's not like this is the Olympics!' So I made a very pathetic face and said, 'Coach, I am tired.' But, of course, I had to go."

There was no let-up in intensity when they came to India to train at the national camp in Lucknow either. Power cuts are not infrequent at the Sports Authority of India campus and Vinesh recalls one such incident just before the selection trials for the World Championships when the supply snapped in the middle of a training session in the humid wrestling hall. "We had just come back from a competition in Turkey [the Yasar Dogu], so I was very tired," she says. "And then the light went out. The rest of the girls in the national camp ended training because it was difficult to breathe. My hands were slipping because they were so sweaty. But training went on. That day I felt I was going to die."

But Vinesh understands the purpose of that experience. "If I just had my way I would just sleep through the day but I can't do that, can I?" she says. "I need someone to push me."

While she was willing to put in the hard yards, it took longer to commit to shifting to a heavier weight category. Through her career, she had enjoyed all her success in the lightest women's division. Yet the weight cut from her already lean walking weight of 57kg to compete in either the 48kg or subsequently the 50kg division was increasingly gruelling. Ahead of the 2016 Olympics she had already missed a tournament after failing to show weight. The cut would grow even harder with the UWW decision this year to spread matches over two days. That meant that instead of being able to recover from the drastic weight loss overnight, wrestlers would have to make weight on the morning of two separate competition days.

Even so, the decision to move up was a struggle. "My fear was that my opponents would be so strong in the 53kg division," she says. "It took me two months to make the decision." The reality of the weight-cut challenge and Akos' reassurance that she would thrive in her new category prevailed on her.

Akos wasn't telling the entire truth but he had his reason. "Of course, the 50kg division is the easier category," says Akos. "But it was just getting impossible for her to make that weight. Every time you cut weight, your body's muscles pick up micro tears. These small injuries keep adding up and lead to bigger injuries."

Vinesh's has had her share of injuries. It took her nearly half a year to recover from a serious ligament tear to her knee in 2016 and she missed out on the 2018 World Championships, despite being in the form of her life, after picking up an elbow injury. This year has been remarkably healthy one for Vinesh, which her coach credits at least partially to her wrestling at close to her natural weight.

It has done wonders for her state of mind too. When she turned 25 on August 25th, she was able to enjoy a slice of birthday cake, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago. "In the past, for one month before competing, the only thing on my mind was that I have to lose weight," she says. "I wasn't worried about my competitor as much as my weight."

This isn't to say that the transition to the 53kg division was seamless. At the Asian Championships -- Vinesh's second competition this year -- she was blown off the mat 10-0 by Japan's Mayu Mukaida. The lopsided defeat against an opponent who didn't out wrestle as much as outpower her was a bitter pill to swallow. "I started crying because I didn't think I would lose this badly," she says. "I didn't want to wrestle any more. I had decided even though I had a bronze-medal match, I would lose that 10-0 on purpose as well."

Ultimately, Akos convinced Vinesh to wash her face and get back on the mat and wrestle her bronze-medal match. Up against world bronze medallist Qianyu Pang, a wrestler who had beaten her 9-2 just a couple of months before at the Dan Kolov tournament, Vinesh would pick up a convincing 8-1 win.

It was a victory that gave her renewed self-belief and was to be the catalyst for a near-perfect streak of three gold medals and a silver that followed. But while they were welcome, it wasn't as if a poor performance there would have counted for much either. "For coach, the only tournament that matters is the World Championships," she says. "When we went for any tournament, we kept training for the World Championships. Two days before the Yasar Dogu competition, we were still doing weight training because that was on our schedule."

It isn't just Akos who thinks this way. Vinesh explains herself using the example of badminton player PV Sindhu, who she admires greatly. "Sindhu didn't win any tournament this year before the World Championships," she says. "And after she has won it, does anyone even care what has happened for the rest of the year?"

Vinesh too is focused on the World Championships of her own sport. Physically she is the strongest she has ever been. "Before, Vinesh had very strong legs but was weaker in her upper body," says Akos. "This year we have made her arms and upper body strong too." Her movement on the mat has also improved. "She had the bad habit of just standing around on the mat. You need to always be working, you need to be constantly moving, circling, feinting. Vinesh is moving better now. She has learned how to fake, how to push and pull the opponent to create better openings."

But Akos wants more still out of Vinesh. "At the World Championships, I want to see Vinesh make more transitions after a takedown," says Akos. "In any wrestling match against a high-quality opponent, you get maybe four chances to attack. If you complete a takedown on each of those opportunities, that's a total of eight points. But if you transition from a takedown to another attacking move, you should be able to score another four points."

Akos conservatively predicts a last-eight finish for Vinesh at Nur Sultan. "Right now there are about eight wrestlers who are at roughly the same level in the 53kg category. Vinesh is one of them," he says. By Akos' reckoning, apart from Vinesh, there's USA (top seed Sarah Hildebrandt), Belarus (two-time world champion Vanessa Kaladzinskaya), Sweden (Olympic bronze medallist Sofia Mattson), Japan (world champion Mukaida), North Korea (current Asian champion Pak Yong Mi), China (world bronze medallist Qianyu Pang) and Russia (two-time European champion Stalvira Orshush). Vinesh has victories over every one of these opponents with the exception of Mukaida (to whom she lost at the Asian Championships) and Orshush (whom she has never competed against).

Akos certainly believes even the 10-0 blowout to Mukaida might well be avenged in Kazakhstan. "Mukaida wasn't so much better but Vinesh was mentally not ready," he says. "The difference between the two of them isn't 10-0. It was probably about three points." Even the loss wasn't an entire negative. "Vinesh lost but it was important for her to compete. She needed to get a feel in her skin about what fighting these opponents is like."

A medal at the Worlds would be a great way to cap a perfect year, but Akos says three conditions need to be fulfilled for that happens. "You need very good preparation without injury," he says. "She has had that sort of training. After that you need self-belief. You might have done the world's best preparation but if you don't believe in yourself it doesn't matter. Vinesh has that confidence too now. What she knows is enough to win." The third will be determined only in Nur Sultan. "In wrestling, what you really need is luck."

That's out of her hands though. For now, she's secure in the knowledge that she has given herself the best shot to perform at Nur Sultan. In Kharkhoda two weeks ago and certainly in Nur Sultan on Monday, Vinesh will be at least outwardly relaxed, although she doesn't deny the fact that she sometimes feels the nerves kick in. "It's not like there is no pressure," she says. "But I've learned how to manage it. If it swells, I know how to suppress it. If I win, the earth won't come and praise me, and if I lose, it won't swallow me. But regardless of the win or loss, I'm going to keep walking forward."