Indian wrestlers return to action with the Yasar Dogu series

India’s finest woman wrestler, Vinesh Phogat, will also make her return to the mat in Istanbul.

India’s top wrestlers will return to competitive action for the first time since the Tokyo Olympics at the Yasar Dogu Ranking Series in Istanbul starting Thursday, marking the beginning of a packed season that will hurtle towards the Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and World Championships. Tokyo bronze medallist Bajrang Punia will compete for the first time in seven months while silver medallist Ravi Dahiya had kicked off his season last week at the low-key Dan Kolov tournament in Bulgaria.

India’s finest woman wrestler, Vinesh Phogat, will also make her return to the mat in Istanbul. It will be the beginning of yet another testing period for her after she endured a tough span of physical and emotional turmoil after crashing out of her second Olympics without a medal despite being ranked world No 1 going into Tokyo. The 27-year-old will compete in the 55kg category in Istanbul to test her preparedness, before shifting to her regular 53kg weight class for the two major tournaments of the year.

It will be a fresh start for Phogat and Punia in more ways than one–both wrestlers parted ways with their long term foreign coaches after the Olympics. Punia’s hunt for a new coach is still on, but he is currently working with former Olympian Sujeet Maan.

“Bajrang is highly motivated. He is targeting big tournaments this year and has his eyes set on the Paris Olympics. He told the federation that he wants to train under me at the national camp,” said Maan, who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. “I have been with Bajrang at various stages of his career. I was with the team as coach during his cadet days, then as a coach in the national camp from 2015-2017. I know him well and we trust each other.”

Maan said Punia is working on his ground wrestling, endurance levels and leg defence. Crucially, Punia, 27, would want to remain injury free in the hectic season.

“We are focusing on his fitness levels. He is coming back after seven months and there was a lot of work to do. The knee injury he sustained before Tokyo was crushing but despite that he won a medal in Tokyo which is amazing. He is in good shape now,” said Maan.

It will be a challenging outing for Punia in Istanbul, where the 65kg pool includes reigning world champion Zagir Shakiev, world championships bronze medallist Iszmail Muszukajev of Hungary and Mongolia’s Tulga Tumur Ochir, who has given Punia some tough times in the past.

Phogat too has been training in the national camp, under new chief national coach Jitender Yadav. After going down tamely to Vanesa Kaladzinskaya of Bulgaria in the second round in Tokyo, Phogat opened up about her mental and physical challenges. She also had a fall out with the federation over disciplinary issues during the Olympics.

“All that is past now and she is doing well in training,” said Yadav. “She was the top seed going into the Tokyo Olympics and in such good form. For a wrestler of her stature, to come back from her second Olympics without a medal, was a mentally crushing. It takes time to recover. But Vinesh is a champion and she is very much in the scheme of things in an important year.”

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