Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan), Sep 18: India's star wrestler Vinesh Phogat secured Tokyo Olympics qualification and won a bronze medal on Wednesday (September 18) at the UWW World Championships in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. While Pooja Dhanda put herself one win away from her second medal at the World Championships.
Vinesh endured a medal-less run in the last three World Championships but her drought finally ended by pinning Maria Prevolaraki to win by fall in the bronze-medal bout.
"It is my first World Championship medal. I have been trying hard for the last five years and finally, I've won a medal. It is a big thing to win a medal at the Worlds," Vinesh told reporters.
"I had changed my weight category and in just 10 months, I got this medal. It is a thing of great happiness for me. It is the biggest medal of my career till now. I dedicate this medal to my country."
Talking about her preparations in the run-up to the event Vinesh said she practised with younger boys in her home state (Haryana) who participate at the national level.
"Back at home, I practised with boys who were younger than me but wrestle at the national level to prepare for the tough challenges and it paid off," the Asian Games gold-medallist wrestler said.
The 25-year-old Indian lost a point for passivity after Maria, the two-time medallist, suffered a cut on her face at the beginning of the bout. Vinesh made two moves but Maria defended well to keep the narrow lead at the break. Maria forced standing wrestling, locking Vinesh.
The Indian attempted a double leg attack but Maria defended well. The Greek then put pressure on the Indian by grabbing her right leg. Moments after Maria received treatment on her wound for a second time, Vinesh pulled off a four-point throw and kept her on the ground to complete the win by fall.
Vinesh is only the fifth Indian woman wrestler to win a Worlds medal after Alka Tomar (2006), Geeta Phogat (2012), Babita Phogat (2012) and Pooja Dhanda (2018).
Earlier in the day, she had held off world number one Sarah Ann Hildebrandt with some superlative defence in her second repechage round to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. Vinesh is now one of India's most successful wrestlers with gold medals at the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games, already in her cupboard.
Later, she was congratulated by fellow Indian wrestlers present at the venue. Two-time Olympic medallist Sushil Kumar congratulated Vinesh and the coaches for their impressive show.
Adding to the elation of the Indian camp was a gritty show by Pooja in the 59kg, a non-Olympic category. Pooja reached the semifinals with a remarkable come-from-behind 11-8 win over Japan's Yuzuka Inagaki before losing the semifinal by technical superiority to Russia's Liubov Ovcharova, the 2017 European champion.
She will now fight for her second bronze medal at the Worlds, having won one in 57kg at the 2018 Budapest edition. Pooja can now become the first female wrestler and only second Indian to win two World medals.
Only Bajrang Punia has achieved the feat. He won a bronze in 2013 and a silver in 2018. In her bout for the Olympic qualification, at least five times, Hildebrandt had got hold of Vinesh's right leg but with her immense upper-body strength, the Indian did not let her rival take advantage and won 8-2.
As the top seed and reigning Asian champion, Bajrang Punia (65kg) will hope to erase last year's bitter memories of a painful final defeat and lay his hands on a gold medal from the World Championships for the very first time. The medal favourite will start his campaign against Poland's fifth seed Krzysztof Bieńkowski, who lost the bronze medal bout at the 2019 European Championships.
Last year's champion Takuto Otoguro, who became the youngest Japanese to win the world title, is the second seed and will be Bajrang's toughest competitor in his quest for the yellow metal.
In 57kg, Ravi Kumar will take on Korea's Kim in the Round of 32 as the men's freestyle action begins.
In women's wrestling, Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik (62kg) has a tricky opener against two-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist Aminat Adeniyi of Nigeria while Commonwealth and Asian Games bronze medallist Divya Kakran (68kg) has an extremely tough first bout against the reigning Olympic and former world champion Sara Dosho of Japan.
(With PTI inputs)