from Lombard and the other support staff there, including physiologist Sandhya Silal. Her stay more than made up for the lack of emotional support that she would have gotten from her family, leading to an early recovery and a return to action at the Bharat Kesari Dangal at Ambala in March 2017.
“We started with the really basic stuff, but the whole plan revolved mainly around the mental part. What we try to do in such cases is to take it slowly. In the initial phases, the main task was to maintain her fitness, make sure there was not too much loss of muscle mass and very slight training. The aim is to reach a point where the athletes are stronger than they were before the injury. We had to make sure that, when she went into training, she was at a point where she would be able to handle anything the coach threw at her,” says Lombard.
Phogat’s struggles, in fact, have forged her strength of character. While it may be easy to dismiss her battles with a conservative rural Haryana society that continues to be steeped in patriarchy — Geeta and Babita, initiated into the sport by their father, Mahavir Singh Phogat, were the ones who braved the bulk of the taunts and jeers — it doesn’t account for her own fights both in and outside her family. Aside for the outside world that continues to put a premium on the male child, the battle for recognition and an indentity separate from her cousins was equally tough.
“That there are greater expectations from girls and we are being held up as role models in wrestling — a mainly male sport — is itself a huge ego boost. To know you have played a role, howsoever small it may be, is a great feeling. And the state’s support plays as big a role as the family’s,” says Phogat. But there is no running away from the dichotomy in Haryana — a state with one of the worst sex ratios in the country being a nursery for most of India’s champion women wrestlers.
Phogat insists there are girls from other states who are as good or even better than those in Haryana, but they lack government and financial support. Alka Tomar would agree. The Uttar Pradesh wrestler was the first Indian woman to win a medal at the World Championships, in 2006, but she is now a footnote in the country’s wrestling achievements, having failed to trigger a revolution the way the Phogat family has.
“You need infrastructure at the grassroots, but you also need heroes. Most of the districts in Haryana today have at least one big wrestler, which helps motivate youngsters. But, most importantly, girls need to stand up for what they want to do. It’s not just about sports — even otherwise, in education or in life, girls need to stop feeling pity for themselves or considering themselves weak. You have to have the strength of belief in yourself. The first step has to be taken by a girl herself; everything else follows,” says Phogat.
But it is easier said than done, and the wrestler herself is quick to admit there are times when she feels helpless despite all her achievements. “Whether you do well or badly, routine or out of the box, society will always find something to criticize you for. Some of the girls I studied with back in the village have now got married and I did not even know. When I go back home, I hear them saying their family doesn’t allow further studies or going out or doing anything independently. I feel bad and also helpless about what could I possibly do for them. But then I realize that all my words would be useless if they do not take the first step,” she says.
Talk veers back to wrestling and her injuries, and Phogat is glad to get back to speaking about what she can do something about. “Injuries are a part of the game, but it is definitely disappointing. My body and mind were both feeling good. The entire year had gone well. I had worked hard for this and a medal to end the year would have been perfect. But now the focus is to work on mistakes and areas of concern, get back to training quickly for the next year when qualifications for the Tokyo Games would start.”
Lombard insists there is nothing wrong with Phogat as far as her training or injuries are concerned, especially before big tournaments.
“She is one of the hardest workers out there, so there is nothing lacking or wrong with her per se. What is required is for those around her to manage her workload and train smart because Vinesh is someone who gives her 400 percent in both training and competition. She needs to be guided intelligently to avoid such injuries,” he says, echoing not just her coach Kuldeep Malik, but nearly everyone at SAI.
With the camp over, Phogat will be heading to Balali. It’s been two years since she spent more than a day with family, she says, and now is the best time to catch up on those lost moments, more so with her impromptu engagement to fellow wrestler Somvir Rathi after the Asian Games.
It’s nearly dinner time and Phogat decides she now wants to go back to the safety and comfort of familiar faces.