"Winning this is no less than a medal" - Vinesh Phogat on taking on the system

Bajrang Punia, Vinesh Phogat and Sakshi Malik protest against the Wrestling Federation of India (WFI). Photo by SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

Vinesh Phogat could have been at the Asian Wrestling Championships in Astana, Kazakhstan today. She could have been training in Poland - that trip had been approved by the Sports Ministry.

Instead, she's at the Sports Authority of India centre in Sonepat where, apart from training with Bajrang Punia, she's put her career on the line for the biggest fight of her life: taking on the Wrestling Federation of India.

This is a fight that is demanding a lot of her, but Vinesh is determined to see it through. "What else can I do? Where else can I go? What will they do? Harm us?" she asks during a long chat with ESPN.

"There are so many people giving up their lives for the nation. Even our sacrifice will be remembered as the athletes who took a stand to save sports in the country. Who knows, this may bring about a positive change in sports. If sports improve because of an athlete, then is there a bigger medal than this? Winning this battle would be no less than a medal," she says.

The Sports Ministry had approved an 11-day training stint at the Olympic Preparation Centre in Spala from March 28 to April 7 but Vinesh stayed back. "How could I when so much is going on here? If I went abroad, then it would look like we've given up and I would have been disconnected from the system. We cannot go abroad to train or compete until this fight [against the WFI] ends," she says.

Three months after their protest, the wrestlers still have no clarity on what's happening regarding their complaints. Two committees were formed to investigate the wrestlers' complaints but neither of their findings has been made public yet.

"No one has given us a clear answer or taken responsibility. Everyone wants to protect themselves. We don't even know who is running the WFI. Those in the system are also helping him [WFI president Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh]. Chor ko bachane ke liye chor hi lage hue hain [the thieves are trying to protect one of their own]. How many more people do we have to fight? We don't even know," she says with a wry laugh.

"As athletes, there's only so much we can do, but we can always push right? Then we will have the satisfaction that we did something good for sports. Ji jaan lagake karenge, jitna hona hai ho jaega [we'll give it our all, whatever happens, happens]."

Vinesh isn't afraid to speak up - it's in her DNA to say what's on her mind. She has been vocal about her mental health struggles, the constant flak she has received and the harassment she's faced from the Federation. She admits that this tussle with the WFI has been mentally taxing but is not one to back down.

"It's so, so difficult, but what can I say? As an athlete, you're always told to 'adjust'. Abhi adjust kar kar ke hum thak chuke hain [now we're tired of adjusting]. It's always the athlete who has to adjust, the system does not adjust for us. For all you know, they could have it [the upcoming elections for the WFI president] behind closed doors, that's how the system is. They say it's all fair, but for all you know he may come back into power or one of his aides may. There's no guarantee. The athlete is the one who always has to adjust," she says.

Despite all the uncertainty engulfing the wrestling community, Vinesh maintains a positive outlook and will to fight the system. "Haar maan le hum? [should we accept defeat?] It's better to fight and hope for the best. I've been here for 20 years and I know how this system works. We've waited for so long to see change, but where is the change? Everyone wants a Bhagat Singh [revolutionary], but from someone else's house.

"Changes can be made only if you make sacrifices, you can't just sit at home and hope for change," says Vinesh.

She says 15 women wrestlers have told the investigating committees about their experiences with the WFI chief and the sort of harassment they have faced.

"So many women wrestlers have sat me down and told me the kind of harassment they had to undergo. But they cannot come forward and talk about it because then they will be treated in the worst possible manner. How do you expect them to come forward when they are the ones who will be targeted? That's how the system works."

Vinesh also hopes there's a change in mentality among athletes to stand up to those in power and question their wrongdoings. And she hopes to see a day when athletes from different disciplines come to each other's support.

"If all the thieves can come together, why can't we athletes come together? That way we can keep the system in check. If all the athletes in the country come together then the system will have to support us. Athletes have let go of the fear and take the step to come forward. You need to leave your sport and look at the bigger picture of sports in India," she says.

"The mentality has to change. What's the worst they [the system] can do? Will they snatch the roti from your hand when you're about to eat? Will they take your life? Will they take away your game? No one has the himmat [courage] to do that. No one can take anything away from someone who has worked hard to reach a level."

With all that's happening, Vinesh still finds the energy for a wisecrack. "Now this matter is stuck in the hands of athletes like me, we will ensure there will be an outcome no matter what (laughs). We will not let them go so easily. We are very ziddi [stubborn], once we've caught hold of something we aren't going to let go. Either they or us, only one of us will remain," Vinesh signs off with a cheeky laugh.