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

Only a lifter knows the importance of having a strong foundation and the resultant confidence it provides to shine in life. This is how Mirabai Chanu built hers.

Mirabai Chanu became the first Indian to win a weightlifting medal since Karnam Malleswari claimed a bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games.   -  PTI

Rarely does one see an Indian athlete approaching the Olympics with such confidence like the way weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu did at the Tokyo Games. You have to have a strong foundation to emanate such infectious confidence.

Perhaps the last time an Indian headed to an edition of the Olympics with such conviction was in 2012, when Beijing bronze medallist Sushil Kumar walked into London.

Pint-sized champion Mirabai, all of 150cm, not only carried the aspirations of 130 billion Indians on her shoulders at the biggest sporting event in the world, but also landed a silver in the women’s 49kg weight category to give the country a never-before moment at the Olympics: India got on to the medals tally on the very first day of competition.

Mirabai also became the first Indian to win a weightlifting medal since Karnam Malleswari claimed a bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games.

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Both Mirabai and her coach Vijay Sharma have said that it was the culmination of a five-year-long journey, one that was filled with ups and downs.

Actually, the tale of Mirabai’s firm determination and strong will power began in 2006 when she set out to become an archer. A chance encounter with weightlifting attracted the pre-teen girl to a sport that demanded strength of body and mind.

International lifter-turned-coach L. Anita Chanu spotted Mirabai and realised she was cut out for it.

Despite their humble background and other obstacles, Mirabai’s sports-loving parents let the youngest of their six children pursue the demanding sport. The biggest challenge for the young Mirabai was travelling 20km one way from her village Nongpok Kakching to the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal. She would leave home in the pre-dawn hours to join early morning training sessions, with all of ₹5 in pocket money a day. If there was no bus, she would hitchhike!

“Mirabai was very disciplined and confident from the start. She was never reluctant to work hard,” says 55-year-old Anita, who has produced several top lifters, including internationals Soniya Chanu and Renubala Chanu, from the Manipur government-run centre.

After learning the early lessons of weightlifting in Imphal, mirabai shifted to the national camp in Patiala in 2011 to enter a significant phase of her career.

Missing her family and struggling with unfamiliar languages, Mirabai tried to adapt herself to the hostel life at the National Institute of Sports (NIS).

Mirabai’s career got a fillip when she met Vijay Sharma. She worked with him to win a silver medal behind her state mate Sanjita Chanu at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games in what was the most significant result for her then.

Sharma understood that Mirabai could be groomed to achieve something special. For an 18-year-old homesick girl, his comforting guidance was a pleasant break from the one-dimensional athlete-coach relationship.

As the bonding between the two became firmer, Mirabai’s career flourished. She qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, contrary to expectations, Mirabai experienced a ‘black out’ in the clean and jerk and left the biggest stage in ignominy.

Had she succeeded in her clean-and-jerk attempt of 106kg, she would have claimed the bronze in Rio with an aggregate of 188kg!

“The Rio Olympics debacle and the time after that was the most difficult period for both of us,” says Sharma. “There was a phase when it was not clear how to get over that phase. When I analysed it, I found that before Rio, she had done 106kg in clean and jerk (at the Asian championships), but she could not do 104kg and 106kg at the Olympics. My mind started working. I realised that her performance could get affected by a technical fault. And we needed to work on Mira’s strength as well.”

Apparently, destiny had better ideas.

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In about a year, Mirabai became a world champion in the 48kg weight category by lifting an aggregate of 194kg.

The gold medal in the 2018 Commonwealth Games with a bigger total raised her confidence before a lower-back injury pulled her down.

Mirabai Chanu with her father and mother at Imphal airport after returning home. Despite their humble background and other obstacles, her sports-loving parents let the youngest of their six children pursue a demanding sport.   -  PTI

 

Her mother Tombi Devi – who lived her dream through her daughter and gifted Mirabai a pair of gold earrings featuring the design of the five Olympic rings – and Sharma stood like rocks in the tough period when Mirabai did not touch the barbell for four months. She went through a desolate phase and had nearly given up hope of resuming competitive weightlifting. But she fell back on her steely determination to come back and produce good results again.

As if the setbacks were not enough, the COVID-19 pandemic’s onslaught derailed her training. But Mirabai had become seasoned in dealing with low phases in her career. She again showed her immense strength of character to stage another fightback with renewed vigour.

Stints with expert physical therapist Dr Aaron Horschig in the USA proved beneficial as Mirabai achieved her peak performance, totalling 205kg with a new world record of 119kg in the clean and jerk, at the Asian championships in Tashkent this year.

Mirabai, who switched from 48kg to the revamped 49kg category, increased her performance by 35kg in eight years and looked set to make amends to her forgettable showing in Rio.

Another stint with Dr Horschig prior to the Olympics readied her for Tokyo. Mirabai, who rode an emotional roller-coaster in a dramatic five-year journey, repossessed her pride as she secured the Olympic silver medal with a performance of 202kg, behind Chinese Hou Zhihui, in the Japanese capital.

The wait made her success sweeter. The grind made her medal priceless.

Apart from going through the toil in the gym and on the lifting platforms, Mirabai had to make a lot more sacrifices. Like any other sportsperson, she stayed away from her favourite foods – such as pizza or a serving of home-made eromba – as she chased her Olympic dream with single-minded devotion. After achieving it, the famished Mirabai grabbed a slice of pizza at the Games Village and unshackled herself from the restrictions for a while to enjoy the biggest moment in her life.

 

A grand and colourful welcome in her home state was a befitting reception for 26-year-old Mirabai, who received a cash award of ₹1 crore and the job of additional superintendent of police by the Manipur government.

“You won’t be collecting tickets at railway stations and trains anymore,” said Manipur chief minister N. Biren Singh, referring to Mirabai’s previous employment with the Railways.

Nevertheless, amid the life-changing experience, Mirabai remains unchanged. Sitting on the floor of her humble home to have food, posing for photos with her big family and meeting relatives and long-time school friends, she shows that she is strongly rooted to the ground despite her newly acquired star status.

Only a lifter knows the importance of having a strong foundation and the resultant confidence it provides to shine in life.

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