Dr Aaron, the American who put a spring in Mirabai Chanu's step

Dr. Aaron Horschig, an American physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach, evaluated Mirabai Chanu, found the issues bothering her and formulated a very individualised, structured programme.

Look at the two images above. They show the difference between dreams being crushed and a champion in the making picking herself up.

Look at the two images above. They show the difference between dreams being crushed and a champion in the making picking herself up to realise those dreams five years later.

Weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu’s journey from Rio heartbreak to Tokyo success, in the company of coach Vijay Sharma, has had two important pit stops: Instagram and St. Louis in the US.

Instagram is where Sharma discovered Dr. Aaron Horschig, an American physical therapist, strength and conditioning coach making waves in the world of the iron game.

Sharma needed to make the discovery because Mirabai was suffering the frustration of her body having imbalances that were coming in the way of her lifting freely. The athlete and coach were looking for a healing touch, which they found in Aaron, .

Aaron, a former weightlifter, is a buzzing presence on social media. Famous as @squat_university on Instagram, he has 1.8 million followers devouring videos and posts he puts out on moving better and optimising performance. Also, he has the experience of working with elite strength athletes, notably Martins Licis, the 2019 World’s Strongest Man winner.

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

After interacting with Aaron over chats and video calls, Mirabai and Sharma made their way to St. Louis in October 2020, beginning a partnership that prepared her for Tokyo.

Mirabai’s Olympic silver medal has Aaron beaming. “I am over the moon, just so excited for her, so proud of her. She did amazing,” he said in video interview.

“Her coach actually contacted me, asking for assistance in dealing with some of the injuries that she had. He was frustrated she had been sustaining these injuries. They were trying to get help, but it just wasn’t working. He knew she had so much potential and if she could just get healthy, she could make some amazing lifts,” said Aaron.

After the Rio disappointment, Mirabai bounced back to become a world champion at Anaheim in the US in 2017. The aches and pains were, however, catching up. After her Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018, Mirabai faced her biggest challenge as a lower back pain prevented her from taking part in the Asian Games and other events.

Mirabai Chanu: There’s no shortcut to success  

After returning to competition in 2019, Mirabai and Sharma knew they needed a solution to her problems and not stopgap measures, especially as elite weightlifting is unforgiving and can brutally expose any weakness. So, what was troubling Mirabai?

“At the time she had been dealing with some nagging back issues, a prior hip injury and, I believe, at the time, small issues with her left and right shoulders,” said Aaron.

He evaluated Mirabai, found the issues bothering her and formulated a very individualised, structured programme. “I remember her right hip was one of the issues and that it was extremely stiff, which led her to actually develop a pretty significant hip shift [she would shift to a side and not come up strong and straight when rising up with the barbell]. That’s what I think was the main cause of her back issues. Nowadays, we only hone in on this side of pain. You don’t take a step back and understand the cause and the connection within the body.”

Aaron addresses injuries such as this with a movement-based approach, which physical therapists use to understand the body. For athletes such as Mirabai, used to lifting more than double their bodyweight, this is like taking baby steps — working with bodyweight and performing various exercises through a range of motion to pinpoint the source of problems. Think of this as asking the fastest human on earth, Usain Bolt, to learn to walk better before he runs. The learning is simple: if bad movement patterns have crept in, focusing on basics can make you better.

Cover story: Mirabai Chanu - An Olympic legacy etched in silver  

Aaron acknowledges this can be frustrating for people devoted to strength, but Mirabai proved a good learner. “She was not hesitant at all. Actually, one of the things that I love most about her approach is that if I tell her here’s what you’re going to do and you’re going to do this with a two-pound weight, she will say okay, and do it as if it was 120 kilos. She would count out the reps, she would count out the seconds. Perfect determination to perform every exercise that I gave her, exactly how I recommended; I think that’s the mark of a true champion. She didn’t think that the exercises I gave her were silly. I think that really is a big reason why she was able to do so well. I mean you get a lot of elite lifters who lift tremendous weight, and you tell them to do something that’s bodyweight or with a very, very small weight. They don’t think it’s that important or they don’t see the carry over.

“She could see the carry over. She could see when we had a specific movement, for example, her right shoulder coming up would hurt. I would show her these very basic exercises and say retest and all of a sudden you would see her eyes light up. She’s like, ‘Oh, pain free.’ She could tell there’s something to this, this is going to help, so I think those were the things that really allowed her to stay focused on the treatment plan that I gave her,” said Aaron.

Battle-ready: Mirabai Chanu goes through the paces under the watchful eyes of Dr. Aaron Horschig, and her coach Vijay Sharma.   -  Special Arrangement / D r . Aaron Horschig

 

Mirabai, Sharma and Aaron worked closely to address issues that were proving limiting factors. Aaron also figured out that Mirabai had pain in her wrists in the overhead position and began remedial work.

Then came the Asian Weightlifting Championship in Tashkent in April. This was Mirabai’s first competition in over a year. She set a world record in the clean and jerk, lifting 119kg.

Mirabai Chanu returns to India after Tokyo Olympics silver feat  

“This was amazing,” said Aaron. “During that time, she had started to develop some right shoulder pain in the turnover portion of the snatch. If you remember, at the Asian championship, she went one for three [made only one successful lift in her three attempts — 86kg in the third attempt after failing in the first two] in the snatch. So, she was able to perform, but not to her potential.”

Mirabai and Sharma landed in St. Louis a second time. “The shoulder was our main concern. We found that her right shoulder blade was not upwardly rotating optimally, compared to her left.” Work began again. “Think about an athlete like a pyramid. Now, a lot of times, these elite athletes in weightlifting, have extreme power, a lot of skill. Those are like building your pyramid tall. But we know that if a pyramid is built very tall without first having a good foundation, it is easier for the structure to wobble around a little bit. So, the idea behind my approach to helping athletes improve their eventual performance is to first go back to the foundation and help them improve their control, mobility, stability and the quality of movement. Doing so allows them to fully express their power and skill,” said Aaron. “There’s a reason why the pyramids have been standing for thousands of years. The structure as a whole is very firm. It can withstand storms.”

So, can India dream bigger with Mirabai for Paris Olympics 2024? “Definitely,” said Aaron. “I’m very excited for the next three years, because I think Mirabai is going to be able to show the world some amazing things... what we’ve done and will continue to do is going to allow her to stay at this high level for a long time. Paris is three years away, so, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. But I will say that by being healthy and staving off the small aches and pains, there’s no telling what the strength and the power in the skill that she has and what she’s cultivated with her coach will continue to produce. I have very high hopes to see she’ll continue to do.”

Aaron thinks injuries have held Mirabai back a little bit from being able to express her full strength. “But I do believe that she’s got the strength to get there. I think we’ll be able to see some good lifts within the next couple of years. I know her coach firmly believes that she has it within her.”