Vinesh let out a shriek that reverberated not only across the wrestling hall in Rio but across India. The next image was of Vinesh being stretchered off the mat, crying inconsolably. The entire nation’s heart went out for the then 22-year-old. She returned to India on a wheelchair.
There was an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tissue tear in the knee and soon she underwent surgery. A few days later, Vinesh tweeted a picture of her resting on a hospital bed with the leg in a sling.
“Recovering well. Need your blessings. Want to get back soon to what I love,” she wrote.
“I can never forget that injury. Actually every time I go on the mat for a match, that injury motivates me. Following that injury, I was not keeping well mentally, with the thought that the injury could recur anytime. It was one of the lowest points of my career. There was a lot of negativity from within,” the grappler, now 26, told TOI.
“But I was able to come out of it and in hindsight, it has helped me become mentally strong. Yes, I was not able to win a medal in Rio, but that will not affect my performance in Tokyo. I now have the experience of playing one Olympics. I know what to expect, how to prepare and how to conduct myself.
“It is a plus point for me. All these setbacks helped me become stronger, and I feel I enter Tokyo as a much stronger athlete mentally. I want to finish what I have started.”
After such a career-threatening injury, it is never easy to step on the mat again. But Vinesh did, and in 2018 cornered glory by winning gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games as well as the Asian Games. Both gold medals came in the 50kg category, which is not an Olympic weight division.
Undaunted, Vinesh moved to the 53kg keeping Tokyo in mind. This was also done to minimise injuries and prolong her wrestling career. She adjusted to the new weight category ably.
Roping in Hungarian coach Woller Akos also proved to be a positive move.
“People won’t understand from the outside, but earlier my game had technical flaws. I can see now that I am smoother and display clean wrestling on the mat. I don’t feel stuck on the mat anymore. There is motion in my game,” said Vinesh.
It has been five years since that calamitous day in Rio. Life has come a full circle for Vinesh. She will go into Tokyo as the world No. 1 wrestler in the 53kg category and has also got the top billing for the showpiece event.
“We’re on the right track (for a medal),” she says. “There is time to reach my peak form. My target is to peak at the Olympics. I am in no hurry.”
So is there anything left to work upon regarding her skills before Tokyo?
“I need to increase my aggression on the mat,” Vinesh reflected.
Japan’s Mayu Mukaida has been the achilles heel for Vinesh in international tournaments, having lost thrice in three meetings so far. Does she have any special strategy in place for her?
“I have a strategy in place of scoring points in ground wrestling. Look, she will also have her strategies in place, and I also have mine in place – whoever executes better on the day will win,” Vinesh said confidently.
“And, plans are not (in place) just for Mukaida, but for others too. Different kind of strategies are made for different players. You don’t go into an event like the Olympics with strategies for just one competitor in mind.”
There is a massive sense of expectation of a medal from Vinesh in Tokyo. Does she feel pressure as a result?
“I handle the pressure with proper planning and training. If you’ve trained well, then you don’t feel the pressure as much. If people have expectations from me, it is good. It pushes me to do well and I don’t feel like it is a burden. I want to get the Olympic medal for my supporters.”