Mirabai Chanu's journey to Olympic silver: From Rio to Tokyo, a spectacular turnaround

Mirabai's journey from Rio to Tokyo is a story of her evolution - from being a teenager idolising Kunjarani Devi to be an Olympic medallist.

Moment of glory: Mirabai Chanu celebrates after winning the Olympic silver at the Tokyo Games. - REUTERS

Mirabai Chanu's magnificent Tokyo tale had its seeds sown a few years back. 

When Mirabai's graph was witnessing a steady rise, following a comeback from a lower back injury that robbed several months in 2018, her performances in consecutive National championships in Visakhapatnam (2019) and Kolkata (2020) gave it a much-needed boost. 

Visakhapatnam was particularly crucial, considering that it was her second competition after recovering from injury. Within days of competing in the EGAT championships in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in February 2019, Mirabai was ready to test herself.

To everyone's horror, the former World champion in 48kg lost balance and landed on her hip during the first snatch for 83kg. Off the next, the barbell fell behind her, leaving the fans at the competition hall at the Railway Indoor Sports Enclave nervous and anxious. 

Fears of the back injury returning to haunt her was the major concern.

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However, Mirabai succeeded on her third and final snatch, heaving a sigh of relief and making it known that everything was fine. 

She lifted 111kg in her second clean and jerk, her total of 194kg two more than her effort in Thailand.

“Normally I lift 83kg easily. I don’t know what went wrong. Maybe I made a mistake or took it too lightly,” said Mirabai.

Wearing a pair of earrings resembling the five Olympics rings, she revealed how difficult it was to not train for months due to the back injury. 

Mirabai, the positive person that she is, felt that the time on the sidelines allowed her to work on her technique.

The same year, she improved her mark while competing in two major competitions. She lifted 199kg (86, 113) in the Asian championships in Ningbo City in April and breached the psychological 200-mark with an aggregate of 201kg (87, 114) in the World Championships in Pattaya in September. She finished fourth in both events.

Just before the pandemic hit India in 2020, Mirabai was in action at the Kolkata Nationals.

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The eagerness and enthusiasm to push her total up towards the ultimate target of 210kg was clearly there. Mirabai knew that a lift of 210 would positively land her on the podium and even make her a gold medal contender at Tokyo 2020.

Mirabai went about her business with a lot more confidence, beginning with 85kg and  improving it to 88kg on her second snatch. 

In clean and jerk, she started with 111kg and raised it to 115kg in her first two lifts. A wide round of applause greeted her as she rewrote three of her National records set in Pattaya five months ago. 

“The target is to do 90kg in snatch and 120kg in clean and jerk,” she had said then.

Even as the pandemic-induced lockdown brought everything to a standstill, Mirabai and her coach Vijay Sharma took the opportunity to travel to the USA to consult expert physio Dr. Aaron Horschig and ensure that the back issue never troubled her again.

A few corrective exercises and some technical tweaks helped Mirabai secure a bronze in the Asian championships in Tashkent in April 2021 with an effort of 205kg, including a clean and jerk world record of 119kg. 

Though she was closer to her target, Mirabai felt that she needed to work on her snatch.

Mirabai Chanu reacts to an unsuccessful attempt on Saturday during the Tokyo Games. - AP

Realising that a problem in the right shoulder could be troubling Mirabai’s snatch, Vijay rushed with his ward to Dr. Horschig again, hoping to fix the issue a few months before the Olympics. 

After addressing her shoulder issue and knee pain that had suddenly surfaced, Mirabai approached the Tokyo Games with renewed confidence and made a statement by recording 210kg, the highest entry, in the start-list of the women's 49kg weight class. 

It was an indication that she was at the top of her game and was willing to push herself for the gold on a platform where Chinese Hu Zhihui, who has a personal best and world record of 213kg, was considered the biggest contender.

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After her World title triumph in 2017, the Indian Weightlifting Federation (IWLF) had underscored that she was the first Indian to do so in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) era, obviously referring  to Karnam Malleswari’s world crowns in the late 1990s and the bronze in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

Mirabai's journey from Rio 2016, where she had registered three ‘no lifts’ in clean and jerk, to the Tokyo silver is a spectacular turnaround that reflects her evolution -- from a teenager idolising World Championships and Asian Games medallist Kunjarani Devi from her state Manipur to becoming an Olympic medallist herself. 

The 26-year-old Manipuri's eventful five-year journey has culminated in a heroic performance on the world's grandest stage. It is all the memorable given that she has risen from a modest economic background and overcome all hurdles along the way. 

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