An afternoon at Mary Kom boxing academy

As the London Olympics bronze medallist and five-time world champion Mary Kom prepares to flex her muscles at the Women’s World Boxing Championships, we bring you sights and sounds from her school in Imphal.

A view of the Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation on the Langol foothills near Manipur.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

Known as the 'powerhouse of sports' for its fruition in Olympic sports and football, a large part of Manipur’s athletic image is held by the Games Village on the Langol foothills. Inhabited by leopards, jackals and pythons in the pre-Independence period, the belt is now home to the Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation that disciplines human beasts in the ring.

As India was finishing its last-minute preparation for the Women’s World Boxing Championship with Mary spearheading the contingent, we decided to capture the sights and sounds of the iconic school that is shaping future champions.

People in this part of the world are friendly and they take their guests seriously. Singam Priyananda Singh — the secretary of the Manipur Cricket Association — raised his ‘guide’ collar. “I will also go with you. I never get time to go around the city,” he said.

We were in Imphal to cover Manipur’s baby steps towards Ranji Trophy but Singh didn’t mind a detour. The kind soul also called his sports enthusiast friend, Ronel Leishangthem, who knew the route to Mary’s academy.

Grassy wetlands trapped by the hills, the 30-minute ride from the city centre is an escape into the unreal. The deeper you go, the more potholes you cross, the shrieks and grunts get louder.

 

Before you absorb the blood-and-sweat ambience, an intense Mary poster with the catch line ‘Fuels Champions’ packs a punch.

Magnificent Mary had left for Delhi the night before and the camp had a free-spirited look. “At times, they get conscious when madam is around. The last time I was here, I saw her practice with the students,” Ronel said.

Jimmy Leivon, personal secretary to Mary, walked in, “The students behave differently when she is around. They are very scared that she might notice their flaws. And if she remarks something on somebody that this is wrong, they will be very scared. But they are also excited to receive tips. It is precious for them.”

Learning the hard way

Spread over an area 3.30 acres, Mary’s academy stands out for the tranquil location. Coaching, lodging, food and expenses incurred during tournaments are all taken care of. Through trials, the academy identifies boxers aged between 12 and 18. There is a two-part development — physical and psychological.

Ninety boxers — 43 boys and 47 girls — share space in the premises. “Many girls also stay at madam Mary Kom’s old house. We recently inaugurated the dormitory-type hostel. We didn't have a proper hostel. This is the first.

Boxers engaged in an intense practice session.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

“Earlier, we used to only adjust at madam’s old place. We still use that space to keep athletes as she has moved to a new house,” added Leivon, who looks after the operations.

Having spent enough time with the five-time world champion Mary, Leivon understands boxing grammar. “According to my observation, the boxers learn more from themselves. The coaches will, of course, impart techniques and instructions. They will help the boxers correct them with time but mostly, they learn on their own.”

There is no dearth of inspiration in the school. Every room, corridor and even the gymnasium flaunts Mary posters. That same intense look, with different catch phrases.

Every room, corridor and even the gymnasium flaunts Mary Kom's posters. That same intense look, with different catch phrases.   -  Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya

 

Sessions

The training sessions start at 5.30 in the morning. It includes physical training, cardio, stretching et al. During competitions, the boxers slog till lunch time. “Till 3 pm easily,” nodded L. Kishan Singh, one of the senior coaches.

“Mary started the academy aiming to create more Mary Koms. We are expecting big names within one or two years; it was a process started by her,” he said.

Singh, who trained Mary in her formative years, is a shrewd observer. Like a true ringmaster, he hops around the boxers, bends a bit to notice their eyesight and reacts to wrong moves. “Time is very important. You only have three minutes. You need to hit the right spot.”

The boxers also benefit from nutritional advice from officials who come down from Mumbai. They are provided with the required protein diet and supplements.

Former Manipur boxers Z.V Jollyson Tangkhul and S. Ronel are the other coaches at the academy.

Children during a training session. Ninety boxers — 43 boys and 47 girls — share space in the premises.

 

Multi-speciality

The state-of-the-art facilities comprise physiotherapists, medical benefits and academics. Mary, it is understood, values education. “It is essential. It is difficult for the boxers as their days are really hectic. But they have to have education. We take care of their school expenses. In the evening, we have extra coaching class,” Leivon said.

The foundation tries to negotiate with schools citing the kids’ boxing credentials. Corporate sponsors, individuals, banking patrons and well-wishers from the SAI extension scheme helps in funding.

“We recently partnered with Hero. But it is not easy all the time. The big companies, even if they have lots of funds under Corporate Social Responsibility, they want to have their own activities. Tata has Tata trust, Reliance has Reliance Foundation. They will not directly give you money like that,” he added.

From the star student

Chasing Olympic dreams, Shanti Kumar — one of the bright prospects at the academy — derives strength from Mary’s words. “Madam observes my training whenever she drops in. She ensures she spends at least two to three days. She told me how to focus and showed us the direction from the beginning. The best thing about her is whatever she has, she will share all her experience without hiding anything. The plus and minus points, everything.” he said.

Shanti is keen to have bouts with Olympic champions to sharpen his skills. “I am focused. I know my goal. Madam and my coaches here will make it possible."

Olympic bronze, Arjuna award, Padma Shri, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Padma Bhushan — Mary achieved it all.

Over to the next generation.