Gyaneshwari Yadav remembers the first time she got a picture with Mirabai Chanu. At that time about a year ago, Gyaneshwari was an 18-year-old in her first weightlifting national camp at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala. The promising weightlifter was in awe of Mirabai, the former world champion, who had just won an Olympic silver medal in the women’s 49kg division a couple of weeks ago in Tokyo.

“I was in my first national camp, but because I was a youth level athlete and Mira  didi  (sister) was a senior, we trained separately. So, it wasn’t possible for me to speak to her. But I was excited just to see her. I was like, ‘Wow, there’s  didi .’ Then one day, I was coming from lunch and saw that she was standing outside the hall. I got the courage and asked her for a photograph. She was very nice and obliged,” Gyaneshwari recalls.

A year later, Gyaneshwari has a second photograph with Mirabai. This one isn’t of a rookie with her idol, but of two compatriots. The two are standing on the podium of the 49kg class at the Khelo Indian Women’s Weightlifting League held at Nagrota Bagwan in Himachal Pradesh.

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Mirabai, of course, is on top after the competition on June 17. But standing to her right in second place, with a big grin, is Gyaneshwari, who has won her first senior medal. “I was a little scared at first when I learned I was going to compete with her. But when I finished on the podium, I couldn’t believe it. I was just happy that I got a chance to compete with  didi ,” she says.

Mirabai, the best women’s weightlifter in India, has a personal best total of 205kg (86kg snatch + 119kg clean and jerk). But Gyaneshwari is no longer a star-struck speck in the distance. At Nagrota Bagwan, she managed a total lift of 170kg (establishing a junior national record of 78kg in the snatch, and 92kg clean and jerk).

At 19, Gyaneshwari still has to develop the brute strength needed for the clean and jerk, but she has already snatched more weight than anyone else apart from Mirabai in India.

In fact, she’s actually slightly better than what Mirabai was at the same age. When the Manipur lifter was 19 years old, her personal best total was 168kg (75kg snatch + 93kg clean and jerk), and with it she took second place at the 2014 Asian Junior Championships.

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Gyaneshwari Yadav was in her first national camp at NIS, Patiala, as a youth athlete when Mirabai Chanu returned from Tokyo Olympics after winning the silver medal. The youngster spotted Mirabai one day after lunch and mustered up the courage to ask for a picture. Mirabai obliged.

 

“She’s one of our most promising weightlifters. We have a lot of expectations from her,” says Sahdev Yadav, president of the Indian Weightlifting Federation.

Gyaneshwari is from the small town of Rajnandgaon in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, and admits her home is not known for throwing up weightlifting talent. “My district is very small. Many haven’t even heard of it. There’s no craze for weightlifting. Rajnandgaon isn’t special for anything actually,” she says.

But Gyaneshwari says lifting heavy weights was probably something she was destined to do. Her father, Deepak Yadav, was a bodybuilder who won the Mr. (then undivided) Madhya Pradesh state title in 1997 and competed nationally as well. Although he had to give up the sport after getting married, he always hoped to pass on his love for the iron to his children.

“After getting married, I couldn’t afford to be a bodybuilder. I had started working as an electrician. You can’t raise a family on that, while also competing. But I always hoped one of my children (Gyaneshwari and her younger brother) would follow the sport,” he says.

Gyaneshwari did want to. “When I was in Class 7, I saw some kids from a local gym putting on a weightlifting display at a festival. I thought it was very interesting. So, I asked my father if I could do it, too,” she says.

Deepak soon took his daughter to a neighbourhood gym to see if she had any potential in the sport. “I only gave her an unweighted bar at first just to see if she could handle it. After that first day, she said she liked it. So, that’s when I persisted,” he says. He had intended to make her a powerlifter at first, and Gyaneshwari proved to be a natural at it. After starting out with just a rod, she slowly started putting weight on it.

“The coach there said I had a naturally good squat position. After one year, I was still very small. I was only around 37kg, but I had a squat of 65kg, a deadlift of 95kg, and a 40kg bench press. I even took part in a national level competition and won a gold medal in the sub-junior category,” she says.

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It was after that medal in powerlifting that Gyaneshwari’s father took her to her first Olympic weightlifting session. “That’s when I thought she needs more expert training. I took her to Jai Bhawani Vyayamshala in Rajnandgaon. It is the best Olympic weightlifting centre in our town. She’s been training there since then,” he says. While money has never been easy to come by on his income as an electrician, Deepak says he has done what he could. “A bottle of good quality protein powder costs some 15,000 rupees. There are times when I’ve paid for it in installments. I always wanted Gyaneshwari to lack for nothing,” he says.

While there weren’t many role models in Olympic weightlifting in Rajnandgaon, Gyaneshwari says she looked for inspiration from Mirabai herself. “I was only starting in Olympic weightlifting when I saw  Didi  win the World Championships (in 2017). That day I told myself, ‘Even I’m going to be like her.’ My mother encouraged me. She said, ‘Of course, you will be like her one day.’ But the truth is at that time I didn’t know how much work I had to put in,” she says.

Becoming a future Mirabai might have seemed unlikely when results weren’t quick to come in Olympic-style lifting. “I got a bronze medal at the 2018 School Nationals, but after that I came fourth at both the Khelo India Games and also at the Youth Nationals. I was training well, but always had some fear on the competition stage,” she says.

Her breakthrough moment would come at the 2020 Khelo India Games, when she won a silver (behind 2022 Youth World champion Harshada Garud). A year later, she finished with a silver medal in the 49kg category at the Youth Nationals. “That’s when I first got a chance to come to the national camp,” she says.

Training at the national camp and (later) National Center of Excellence in Lucknow has seen Gyaneshwari improve steadily. While the technical inputs and better diet and recovery have helped, the opportunity to watch Mirabai has been an education. “ Didi apna training kar ke hi motivate karti hai  (Mirabai motivates us just by her training). I hope when I watch her, even I can improve,” she says.

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And she has improved. In May this year, Gyaneshwari competed at her first World Youth Championships and won a silver medal with a total of 156kg (73kg+83kg). Then she competed at the Khelo India Games in Panchkula, where she improved to 164kg (76kg + 88kg). Her performance at the Khelo India Women’s League is a new personal best. But she is far from done. “I am improving every month, but have to get much better,” she says.

Coaches don’t doubt she will. For now Gyaneshwari still has the light build of a teenager. She still hasn’t developed muscles that older athletes have. Chief national coach Vijay Sharma sees the spark. “She is very technically sound. That’s why her snatch is so high. But she will get stronger as she gets older. That’s when her clean and jerk will improve as well,” he says.

There’s still some way to go for that to happen. “My snatch lift isn’t very far from Mira  didi’s.  But her clean and jerk lift is very strong. It’s much better than mine. I will have to work really hard to get that strong, but if I have to be like Mira  didi,  then that is what I have to do. It’s not impossible. I’ve always admired her, and now I’ve competed with her and stood with her on a podium. So, if she can do it, why can’t I?”