Felicitations are erupting in different corners of the country as India welcomes returning heroes, back from its most successful Olympics. While triumphs are dedicated to all the pretty prose, in darkened corners and silent homes, there is the noise of shattered dreams clanging to pieces, when non-medallists relive how things went wrong. The phone stopped ringing after her exit from Tokyo, as she beat back the deafening sound of silence. Wrestler Vinesh Phogat, who faced heartbreak at the Olympics, pens down her tearful thoughts.
Vinesh Phogat breaks silence: I feel like I am sleeping in a dream and nothing has even begun. I am blank. I don’t know what is happening in life. For the last one week, so much has been going on inside me. It’s a story of two hearts, two minds. I have given everything to wrestling and now is the right time to leave. But on the other hand, by chance I leave and don’t fight, it’ll be a bigger loss for me.
Right now, I really want to focus on my family. But everyone outside is treating me like I am a dead thing. They write anything, they do…. I knew that in India, you fall as fast as you rise. One medal (lost) and everything is finished.
Forget wrestling, let a person be normal. Fellow athletes don’t ask you what went wrong, they tell you what I did wrong. I am shocked that they form their own perspective. At least ask me what happened to me on the mat. Why are you putting words in my mouth that I felt a certain way? I didn’t. Sorry.
I was on that mat. I know what I felt and what I didn’t. No one knows it better than me. If what you think you saw was actually how things were, then you could explain the entire meaning of life.
I don’t care about the world. But they still try to break me. I want to analyze my loss. After Rio, I cared about going back to the mat when everyone said I was finished. Why is Tokyo not my decision?
At the Olympics, no athlete is not under pressure. I was also under pressure in Tokyo, in Rio. But I know how to handle it. I could not do it in Rio but here I did. And I will do it again. Vinesh did not lose because of pressure. Before passing judgments, just ask the athlete what went wrong.
I was okay in Tokyo. I prepared for the humidity, I had salt capsules, I drank electrolytes. I just wished this problem would not arise. But when it rains, it pours.
I had a concussion in 2017, since then I have suffered from it. Things become blurry. It has gone down a lot but when my head strikes on anything, it comes back.
Maybe it was that. Maybe it was the blood pressure. Maybe the weight cut. I’m used to salt capsules. They helped a lot. But they did not work in Tokyo where I was alone.
I was reducing weight. I was my own physio and I was the wrestler. I was assigned a physio from the shooting team. She did not understand my body. My sport has very specific demands. She couldn’t help me with what my regular physio used to. Last day, when I am reducing weight, am I supposed to explain things to her on how things are done in wrestling, or focus on myself? It’s unfair on both of us.
On the day of the bout, I was not getting the feel. After the weight cut, I warmed up, I still didn’t feel it.
I had not eaten the day before the bout. I drank some nutrition but I felt anxious. I woke up with a feeling of vomiting but I could not. I was in pain. There was nothing in my body. Ultimately I did vomit. On the bus ride to the stadium, I called Purnima (my physio) asking her desperately what I could do.
After my first bout, I took a salt capsule. Nothing improved so I took one more. No change. I could not eat anything because I was nauseous and felt like vomiting. I did some breathing exercises but to no effect. I was not feeling in control. I was shivering.
In the second bout, I knew I was losing. I was giving up points from positions I would never have. I can see that everything is going away but I can’t do it. My mind was blocked to that level that I didn’t know how to complete a takedown. I was surprised that I was blanked out.
But the things that I ignored in the last three years, I realised could be the actual problem. I will get some tests done. But there is something.
Since I got COVID the first time (August 2020), I can’t digest protein. One year and I have had no protein in my body. It doesn’t stay inside. When I came back from Kazakhstan after Asian Championships, I fell ill again. I was tested positive for COVID for the second time which I contracted in Almaty. I recovered and flew to Bulgaria. A few days later, my family back home tested positive.
Imagine how I have gotten back to this stage of the Olympics. Five years.
When these things have happened, why will I stay with the Indian team? They were tested every day for seven days. I wasn’t. What if I got it on the flight and infected them? I was, in fact, thinking about them and wanted to stay away for 2-3 days to be sure that they were not at risk. What’s the big deal? After 2-3 days I was going to join them and even began training with Seema. So there’s no question of me not being a team player.
I always invest in the team. I train with the same girls. Now I am going away, I feel worse than them.
I am an emotional person. When in 2019 I changed weight, I was diagnosed with depression for three months. I was in Spain. I felt something was wrong. I never slept. For days I would be awake.
I came back to Lucknow, it became worse. If a coach even spoke in a slightly high tone, I would start crying. As an athlete, the mental pressure is so much that we are always on that thin line. When it crosses, we are done.
That time I was so bad that I was training and suffering. I was injured in Asian Championships. That is when it struck me that this will finish me. I spoke to a psychologist. I needed emotional support so I needed to speak up. Everyone in the family helped me but I can’t express everything, what is going on inside. I told my psychologist that I am very emotional and can cross that thin line.
Do you think doing meditation and talking to a psychologist is enough? Nothing is enough. Only we know.
Now, I find it difficult to cry. I have zero mental strength right now. Like they did not even let me regret my loss. Everyone was ready with their knives.
At least don’t abuse the people on the team because of my result. Who can feel the pain more than the wrestler who has worked so hard mentally and physically?
And which team did I not train with? No one asked me what I did or who I was with. If you were really expecting a gold, then shouldn’t my long-term physio Purnima have been there? (My coach) Woller travelled with me, to help me, stayed with me in Lucknow when his one-year-old son was in Budapest. When COVID hit, he continued training and motivated me when the Olympics was postponed. He did not care about his personal life. How can you blame that person?
Woller did everything. He didn’t stop crying when I lost. His wife didn’t stop crying. She’s a 4-time Olympian and was only of help to my training being from a higher weight category. I’ve won these last three years with the same support staff.
I will never accept that I was under stress or mentally disturbed. I have become emotional because of my journey. Someone needs to understand that I began wrestling without anyone’s permission. Support us but don’t tell me what to do. I worked hard. I invested myself. Money? I’ll give you money, wrestle and give me results. I am a tough person and someone who wants to give herself pain and if I can break to this level, imagine what happens to athletes who return empty-handed. If someone is not strong, imagine.
We celebrate Simone Biles as she said that I am not mentally prepared to perform at the Olympics and did not do her event. Try just saying that in India. Forget pulling out of wrestling, just try saying that you are not ready.
I have not recovered mentally. I slept once since I reached home. I slept for two hours on the flight and sometimes in the Village. There, I would walk alone and drink coffee. I was alone. When the sun would rise, I felt sleepy.
I never said make me a contender for gold. I am wrestling for myself and I was the first to feel awful after losing, but let me do it. Leave me alone.
I don’t know when I will return (to the mat). Maybe I won’t. I feel I was better off with that broken leg. I had something to correct. Now my body is not broken, but I’m truly broken.
Vinesh Phogat is a World Championship bronze medallist from 2019 and was amongst India’s favourites to land a medal at Tokyo, despite the presence of formidable Chinese and Japanese opponents. Not only had she won the Asian Games in 2018, but the 26-year-old had also won gold medals at Istanbul, Poland, Rome, Ukraine, and Asian Championships since 2019 to head into the Olympics as a strong contender. However, she would go down to Vanesa KaladzinsKaya in the quarterfinals, and exit her second successive Games heartbroken, after snapping her knee painfully at Rio. Her spirit though was crushed even before she landed in Tokyo, flying in nettled from Frankfurt after desperate pleas for a dedicated physio were denied. A physio is the most crucial cog in the wheel for wrestlers who cut weight right before their competition and are expected to regain strength to go through their day-long rounds in the draw. Assigned a physio who had been with the Shooting team, Vinesh was left literally left fending for herself, and struggled to advance in the draw. On her return, the Wrestling Federation of India has slapped a temporary ban on her for “not staying with the team”. The wrestler who has medals at all the Majors except the Olympics knows she still loves the sport but is unsure if she wants to continue in the same strained vein that has severely affected her mental health.