Vinesh Phogat will win an Olympic medal. She believes this with a conviction that is absolute. She can see it, feel the texture of the medal in her hand.
You can see the conviction in the grim line of her mouth, the blank eyes – hiding a glint of something dangerous – every time she takes to the mat.
Where does this drive come from? Perhaps it comes from being brought up by a single mother, fighting the oppressive social pressures of a small Haryana village, after her father was shot dead in a dispute when she was just eight-years-old or from growing up in a place where the news of a daughter being born is cause for anguish.
“I am a mistake!” she said aloud to her mother as a child.
Vinesh Phogat knows she must win that Olympic medal. She had first heard about it to the rhythm of blows raining down on her.
“If you make mistakes like this, how will you win an Olympic medal?” Her uncle Mahavir Phogat would say, ironing out weaknesses with a stick when she began training under him, after losing her father.
“What or who is this Olympic medal, and why do I need to win it?” Vinesh would wonder.
Now she knows. She knows also what it is to be a Phogat – the first family of women wrestlers in India, the celebrated Mahavir, smashing through all social conventions to turn his four daughters into wrestlers, and then also her and her sister, all training together on that earthen akhara Mahavir built with his own hands to teach the girls a fighting art that they were not even supposed to watch, let alone learn. You can learn all about it in the movie Dangal. Except you won’t see a character called Vinesh in it.
Why not? Vinesh has thought about it. Why not?
Don’t get her wrong, growing up in the deep country of her village Balali, running through fields of wheat and groves of guava and lemons, spending all day learning to fight, “was a great adventure, a special thing, no other girl we knew was doing anything like it,” she said.
But that is behind her. Now she is one of the best wrestlers in the world, and she deserves to treat herself with care: begin anew, train the modern way – with a personal coach, a nutritionist, a physiotherapist – and do it on her own terms.
“You don’t move enough,” her new coach told her last year. A few years back, she did not even know if she would ever step on the mat again. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, chasing her medal dream brought her crashing down with a ligament tear.
“After that injury, I thought I will never fight in another Olympics,” she said. “I was crushed. I felt incomplete. But that feeling pushed me. I am very stubborn.”
It drove her to put all her focus on the painful process of rehabilitation after a surgery – beginning with just learning how to walk and then, when she was strong enough to get back on the mat, “become obsessed with learning how to move better.”
Watch her take on the world’s number one ranked wrestler in her weight class at the recent wrestling world championships. Her opponent keeps lunging for low takedowns. A wrestler usually defends by moving the legs out of reach. Vinesh moved her legs back, but at the same time, she drove forward fiercely, piling herself on top of her opponent, and grabbing her ankle. Try as she might, her opponent could not twist her way out.
She enjoyed this feeling of taking down one of the best wrestlers in the world. “I don’t want an easy medal. I wan to fight my best fight.”
And she will have to. At the Olympics, it is likely that she will run into the Japanese world champion, whom she has never beaten, and to whom she lost at the world championships.
“I don’t think about who I am fighting,” she said.