Vinesh Phogat became the first Indian wrestler to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics while Pooja Dhanda gave herself a chance to become the country’s only female wrestler to win two World Championships medals, here on Wednesday. Vinesh held off world number one Sarah Ann Hildebrandt with some superlative defense in her second repechage round.

At least five times, Sara 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. After being placed in an extremely tough 53kg draw, Vinesh had lost to reigning champion Mayu Mukaida in the second round.

In her first repechage round, she had easily dispatched Ukraine’s Yuliia Khavaldzhy Blahinya 5-0. Pooja Dhanda added to the elation of the Indian camp by reaching the semifinals in 59kg, which is non-Olympic category. Pooja, who won a bronze at the 2018 Worlds in Budapest, turned it around remarkably against Japan’s Yuzuka Inagaki after trailing 0-5.

She got back in the match but was still behind 4-7. From there, the Indian pulled off a sensational move, slipping from under the Japanese to go behind for a take-down. With just 40 seconds left, Pooja was still behind but soon pulled off a four-point move to take the lead and then held on to that to ensure her passage into semifinals. She beat Belarus’ Katsiaryna Hanchar by technical superiority in her pre-quarterfinal and now faces Russian Liubov Ovcharova, the 2017 European champion.

Pooja had become only the fourth Indian to win a Worlds medal at Budapest last year and now can become the first female wrestler to win two. Only Bajrang Punia has two medals to show at Worlds. While it has been a spectacular career for Vinesh with gold medals at the CWG and the Asian Games, none of her three attempts at the World Championship resulted in a podium finish. Now competing in her fourth Worlds, she is one win away from her maiden medal and standing in her way is Greek wrestler Maria Prevolaraki.

“I am happy and relieved that I am going to Tokyo but it’s not over yet. I have a medal bout and I don’t want to miss that,” Vinesh said as she walked into the training area. Navjot Kaur gave her a hug and the Indian camp, which has endured tough times in the initial days, was gleaming.

There were handshakes but coach Woller Akos was still not smiling. He was still seriously discussing something with Vinesh, probably what she needs to do in her next bout.

At the beginning itself, Vinesh put pressure on Sarah, taking 2-0 with a take-down on double leg attack. The American thrice attacked Vinesh’s right leg in the first period and twice in the second but the Indian kept her on the ground, using all her power. That is what clinched it for Vinesh.

Whenever she got the opportunity, she converted attacks into take-down points. Countering the American was not new for Vinesh, who had beaten Sarah at the beginning of this season at Dan-Kolov tournament in Bulgaria, immediately after switching to 53kg category from 50kg.

In the first repechage, the Ukrainian largely went for head-locks but Vinesh not only defended well she timed her double-leg attacks to log take-down points. Seema Bisla, however, missed Olympic qualification in 50kg after losing her second repechage round 3-11 to Russia’s Ekaterina Poleshchuk. In the 76kg, Kiran had rattled her German opponent Aline Rotter to lead 4-0 but lost five points in a row in the second period to lose the opening bout 4-5.

She paid the price for being over-defensive but still has a chance to get into repechage since the German is still alive.

Much was expected from Sarita Mor after her shock victory over Pooja Dhanda in the trials but she was far from her usual aggressive self on Wednesday. Up against Moldova’s Anastasia Nichita, she remained defensive, losing the 57kg Qualification bout 1-5.



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Aspiring journalist working for and exploring the juncture of sports, business and technology. Interested in sports economy and logistics of sports policy-making.

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