There are several firsts to wrestler Vinesh Phogat’s name. Coming from the immensely successful Phogat family — her cousins Geeta and Babita were Commonwealth Games medallists — the 26-year-old Vinesh became the first woman grappler from the country to bag gold at both the Commonwealth and Asian Games in 2018.
A year later, she became the first Indian athlete to be nominated for the Laureus World Sports Awards.
Vinesh could add another first to her name by winning an Olympic medal in Tokyo, a dream she has been nurturing for the last five years after she was stretchered out at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games during her quarterfinal bout due to a knee injury.
The pain and dejection was all too apparent as she cried and sobbed even as paramedics took her away. Two years later, at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, she was back again, her power and technique flooring the opponents.
Months later, the performance was repeated in Jakarta. But to everyone’s surprise, she returned and tied the knot with long-time boyfriend and national wrestling champion. Many thought her hunger for medals and titles would be over.
But a determined Vinesh never let family matters come in the way of her sporting career as she kept training all along and went on to clinch bronze at the World Championships in 2019, using all her grit in the repechage bouts to get the better of Yuliia Khavaldzhy Blahinya of Ukraine and world No.1 Sarah Ann Hildebrandt of America to assure herself of an Olympic berth in the 53kg category.
The first hurdle cleared, she moved to the next step of competing in major international events, such as the Rome Ranking Series where she won gold. But while the Covid-19 pandemic threw sent the international schedule into a tizzy, she did not compromise on her training.
Once the competitions commenced in 2021, Vinesh was back winning medals. She won three successive gold medals — at Ukraine, Rome and Poland — which pitchforked her to the top of world rankings.