Making of an Olympic medallist: Mirabai Chanu's coach Vijay Sharma's methodology

“It’s a long journey of eight years. The good thing about our combination is that she understands what I want to do and does it even before I tell her about it. I never had any differences with Mira. She does not question what I ask her to do,” says the champion weighlifter’s coach, Vijay Sharma.

“After Mira’s 2018 Commonwealth Games (gold medal) performance (with a total of 196kg), I believed we could do it (win a medal in the Olympics). We were on the right track,” said Vijay Sharma.   -  PTI

When Vijay Sharma took over as the national weightlifting coach in 2012, there were murmurs within the fraternity about his credentials. The man from Modinagar near Meerut did not have the usual glittering resume. What he had was an insider’s view.

Sharma had been a weightlifter — he won seven medals, including a gold, in the national championships, mostly competing in the 94kg weight category — and knew what athletes wanted. One of his initial moves was getting a kitchen inside the hostel for weightlifters. Then, the coach made sacrifices along with his athletes.

“If the athletes training at the national camp in Patiala can’t go home during festivals and I go home, then I can’t establish a rapport with them. I realised this. So, there has been no Holi and Diwali for me with family for the last six years,” says Sharma.

“I celebrated all the festivals with the athletes. For me, there is no family function. Since I don’t visit anyone, my social circle has ended. I love this sport and can do this much for it.”

Today, one of the striking apsects of Mirabai Chanu’s silver medal in the 49kg weight class at the Tokyo Olympics is the steady hand of her home-grown coach.

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Karnam Malleswari, the first Indian woman and the first lifter from the country to win an Olympic medal, was coached by former World and Olympic champion Leonid Taranenko of Belarus when she won the bronze medal in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Taranenko was sacked after two Indian weightlifters were caught for doping during the 2004 Athens Olympics.

When Sharma took over as the national coach, he ignored whisper campaigns. “As an athlete, I was in the national camp from 1993 to 2000. So, I knew what an athlete needs. When you take care of the athletes, the bonding between the coach and the athletes becomes stronger and you get the result. You have to take care of so many things (apart from training),” says Sharma.

His first big event with Mirabai was the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. As years and competitions passed, the bonding became stronger and fruitful.

“It’s a long journey of eight years. The good thing about our combination is that she understands what I want to do and does it even before I tell her about it. I never had any differences with Mira. She does not question what I ask her to do,” says Sharma, who has won the Dronacharya Award, India’s top honour for sports coaches.

“Whether it’s a male or female, an athlete should have the comfort level to share everything with the coach. A coach must behave in a way that doesn’t put any burden on the athlete. In an athlete-coach relationship, the athlete should not have any fear towards the coach. At the same time, the athlete should not take the coach for granted,” he says.

The 2016 Rio Olympics and its aftermath tested both Mirabai and Sharma. Mirabai had three ‘no lifts’ in the clean and jerk in Rio and did not register a total. “It was a really bad period. I realised we could change a few things,” says Sharma. The work continued and Mirabai started making waves.

“Mira became the world champion (with a lift of 194kg) in 2017 in Anaheim in the USA. The change started from there. The Rio failure taught me a lot,” says Sharma.

The coach was also learning. “I did not do any course for coaches, except for three solidarity courses, until I joined the national camp as a coach. Later, I did a coaches’ diploma in Budapest,” he says.

“After Mira’s 2018 Commonwealth Games (gold medal) performance (with a total of 196kg), I believed we could do it (win a medal in the Olympics). We were on the right track,” says Sharma.

After her Commonwealth gold, Mirabai faced her biggest challenge as a lower back pain prevented her from taking part in the Asian Games and other events. The athlete-coach pair consulted several doctors and physiotherapists in the country before addressing it to facilitate Mirabai’s return to competition in early 2019. Sharma rues that sports physiotherapy in the country has not reached the highest levels yet.

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“The stints with physical therapist Dr. Aaron Horschig (in the US) were crucial. The first trip (in late 2020) really helped. After the lockdown, we needed a physio (to address the back issue). On the second visit (after the first two snatch efforts failed in the Asian championships in April, and a shoulder issue required attention), we primarily needed to train with a free mind during the (COVID-19) pandemic,” says Sharma.

In Tokyo, Mirabai had menstrual cramps a day before her competition. The athlete and coach were prepared for this, among other potential blips, and pursued an aggressive strategy, putting 210kg as the entry weight on the start list prior to the competition.

Mirabai won the silver medal with a total of 202kg. The entry weight on the start list was a tactical move.

 

“I knew if we put a good entry total, it would keep others on their toes. Small things can make a difference and your competitors notice those. That’s why I did not put anything about our training on social media,” says Sharma.

So, how can India produce more world-class weightlifters? “Start early and learn the right technique,” said Sharma. “After a level you need everything — diet, nutrition, supplement and physio. At any level of national camp, you get everything. But until you reach that level, you need to work on your technique. Only a coach can’t do wonders.”