National Wrestling C’ship: All Eyes on Vinesh Phogat, Sakshi Malik
It isn’t often that a Commonwealth and Asian Games gold medallist from the same year decides to compete at the national championships in most disciplines in India, but that will happen at the 2018 Wrestling Nationals with Vinesh Phogat out to test her fitness.
India’s only female wrestler to win an Olympic medal, too, will be at the Nationals starting on Friday, 30 November – but for a struggling Sakshi Malik, the weekend ahead in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh is all about reinvention.
Vinesh is on the comeback trail, having had to skip the World Championships in Budapest due to a last-minute elbow injury.
The 24-year-old is competing in the 57 kg category, instead of the 50 kg weight discipline where she has won three gold medals this year. Having been in imperious form through her historic triumphs in Gold Coast and Jakarta, Vinesh is highly unlikely to be troubled by most of her competitors if fit.
“I know lot of wrestlers from the senior camp but there will be lot of juniors competing for the first time. I don't know many of them, so I have to see how it goes,” she said ahead of the Nationals.
In complete contrast, Sakshi's career graph has taken a nosedive after her historic bronze medal at the Rio Olympic Games in 2016. She could win only a bronze at the Gold Coast CWG in a not-so-strong field while returning empty-handed from the Asian Games before suffering a humiliating exit from the World Championship.
The 62 kg event will be a battle between Sakshi and the celebrated Geeta Phogat, who has lost a bit of her sting of late.
Like Sakshi, two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar is also struggling and has decided to skip the event along with Bajrang Punia, who is injured.
Also missing from action is Sandeep Tomar, who too has been an exciting prospect.
Their absence has taken a bit of sheen off the Nationals but it could help in figuring out a new line of wrestlers in the 74 kg and 65 kg categories. Though Bajrang, at the moment, looks almost invincible, a next generation of grapplers will give India a strong option in the 74 kg.
Jitender Kumar and Vinod look the next best options but they are yet to establish themselves as strong replacements for Sushil. Jitender will compete in the 77 kg at Gonda while Vinod will be a contender in the 74 kg.
This year's Nationals also assume greater significance as the much-talked about contracts will be awarded on the opening day of the competition.
Railways (RSPB) are the defending champions in all three competitions.
The Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) will announce the names of the grapplers who will figure in seven categories of contracts with the highest bracket (A) offering Rs 30 lakh.
More than 800 wrestlers from 27 states and two Boards RSPB and SSPB will be seen in action with the Greco Roman style grapplers taking to the mat first.