Not much has changed for world champion Linthoi Chanambam except the fact that she gets occasional glances of admiration from people when they see her on the streets of her hometown Mayang Imphal — a small town of around 25,000 in Manipur.
Linthoi is just 16 and she has already scripted history — she beat Brazil’s Bianca Reis to clinch the gold medal (57 kg category) at the World Cadet Judo Championship in Sarajevo, Bosnia, becoming the first from the country to win a medal in the tournament across any age group.
If becoming the country’s first world champion in judo at such a young age isn’t impressive enough, the climax of Linthoi’s gold-medal fight is no less than a sports biopic that keeps the audience glued to the seats.
With a minute and 28 seconds to go, her coach Mamuka Kizilashvili was removed from the touchline for his protests. Up by a Waza-ari — the second-highest score that is awarded in judo, Linthoi had to hold off her opponent without the moral support of her coach.
“It was difficult. To me, he [coach Mamuka Kizilashvili] is everything. He constantly watches my game and tells me where I am going wrong. If he says something, I listen to him. So, at that time, when he was removed from the touchline, I was confused for a moment. But I was leading that final bout and finishing second was not an option. I knew I had to hold on for just some more time in the biggest fight of my life — even if I had to die on the mat,” says Linthoi.
This win, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hours of rigorous training, meticulous planning and sacrifice. Since leaving her home at the tender age of 11, Linthoi has been training under the watchful eyes of Kizilashvili, head coach of the judo programme at the Indian Institute of Sports (IIS) in Bellary, Karnataka.
“If there is a tournament nearby, I don’t train for long hours. Then, the focus is on rest and recovery. So, maybe, two hours. But when I have normal training and don’t have any competitions, it is about 3-4 hours every day on the mat.”
Despite publicly stating her wholehearted love for pizza, she admits that junk food is a rarity in her life — where she has to follow a strictly planned diet. “More proteins, fewer carbs” — that is the mantra Linthoi has to follow to keep her body fit and maintain her weight.
When asked how she likes to blow off steam, she laughs and says, “I put on my headphones and just dance to hip-hop music. That helps me to relax.”
Mayang Imphal — inspiration personified
Before taking up judo in 2014 at the Mayai Lambi Sports Academy in Imphal, sports, in general, played a major part in Linthoi’s life. From playing football with her friends to dabbling in boxing, Linthoi says immersing herself in sports from a young age has helped her.
Away from the fast-paced life of the city, Linthoi got acquainted with the values of working hard very early. She says that living in Mayang Imphal and the challenges she faced have not only made her tough but inculcated in her the importance of being grounded. A town where judo is popular and also the birthplace of Angom Anita Chanu (bronze medallist at the Asian Judo Championship in Bangkok, 2013 and Arjuna Awardee), Linthoi owes a lot to her hometown and the rustic surroundings that made her a fighter.
“If I got all the comforts and facilities early on, I feel I would not have that drive to work harder and achieve more. But a lot of it depends on you as well. Even in IIS (Indian Institute of Sports) Bellary, there are a lot of facilities but I still see so many people working so hard around me and that inspires me.”
For Linthoi, her father Chanambam Ibohal Singh has been the biggest support system and the first person to suggest she take up judo. From constant encouragement to accompanying her for training sessions, her father, in a way, was her first coach as he taught her some of the core values that contributed to shaping her personality.
“My father is a fish farmer. Growing up, I always helped my dad with his work. From catching fish to taking care of them, transporting them and finally selling them in the market — I helped my father in doing all of that.” Linthoi says this helped her to learn the important lesson of treating all work with dedication.
One step at a time
Young achievers have the spotlight on them from an early age and Linthoi is no different. She won her first medal at the national level in the sub-junior National Championships in 2018. She also won a gold medal in the National Sub-Junior and Cadet Judo Championships 2021-22 in Chandigarh, and followed that up with another gold at the Asian Cadet and Junior Judo Championships 2022 in July.
Despite the high expectations everyone has from the judoka after her recent triumph, she says that she will continue grinding and putting in the effort under the tutelage of her coach, who stresses the importance of hard work and focus, but does not believe in rushing.
“The main aim is definitely to win an Olympic gold like my idol Majlinda Kelmendi (former judoka and the first athlete from Kosovo to win an Olympic gold) but for that, I have to keep working on my technique and become more at ease with my moves. The level of competition will get higher, so I cannot be satisfied with what I have done.”
“Since I am just 16, I do not know how bright my chances are for the 2024 [Paris] Olympics but my main target is getting at my best and being ready for the 2028 [Los Angeles] Olympics.”
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