An obsession with being “neat, tidy and stylish” almost led her to archery, says world champion and Commonwealth Games (CWG) gold-medallist weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who feels that a chance meeting with her eventual coach changed her career plans.

Mirabai’s story is not about somebody being spotted for prodigal talent, but of someone who sought out the opportunity and the right mentor.

As a 13-year-old girl, from a poor family at the nondescript Nongpok Kakching village, around 20km from Manipur’s capital Imphal, Mirabai decided early, in her life, that she would earn fame as a sportsperson.

In search of a sports facility and a mentor, she travelled with a cousin to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Centre, at Khuman Lampak in Imphal, in early 2008, and the rest is history.

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“All my brothers and cousins play football, but they would come back home dirty after a day’s play. I wanted to play a sport which is neat and clean. At first, I wanted to be an archer, as they are neat and clean, and stylish,” Mirabai said, in an interview.

“They just stand and shoot. So, one day, I and my cousin went to the SAI Centre, at Khuman Lampak in Imphal. However, I could not meet any archer, as there was no archery training that day,” she recalled.

“Then, at that time, I saw some clippings of Kunajarani Devi’s exploits in the international arena and that influenced me to take up to weightlifting. So, after a few days, I and my cousin, again, went to the weightlifting training centre and luckily, I met (former international weightlifter and current coach) Anita Chanu, and she initiated me into the sport,” said Mirabai, now 23.

Manipur Weightlifting Association General Secretary Sunil Elangbam, who has tracked Mirabai’s career throughout, said, “When she came for archery training, as far as I remember, it was a rainy day or training camp had finished earlier. Sometimes, luck also plays a part in an athlete’s career. It is good Mirabai could not be an archer and she took to weightlifting.”

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However, Mirabai had to toil hard, at that young age, to adjust her training to her school schedule. “I had to reach the training centre everyday, at 6am, and change bus twice from my village, on a 22km journey. It was tough initially, but I adjusted. Also, I consider myself a strong girl. When I grew up, I did stuff like wood cutting, at nearby hills, bringing them up by myself and then fetching water from nearby ponds, in milk powder cans,” said Mirabai, who is currently training at NIS Patiala.

She was also told by her coach, Anita, to bring a bamboo trunk along for training, something that she built herself. “She told me to bring bamboo trunks, to be used as barbells, for technique training. In weightlifting, you have to start with technique training, building body strength comes later.”

“I had to find some nice bamboo trees near my house and cut them, and prepare to be used as a kind of a barbell. This continued for around a month. Once the technique training was done, I shifted to normal training,” said Mirabai.

At most of the training centres, in the country, young beginners had to use light objects, in the shape of a barbell, to teach how to have a grip and other basic techniques.

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Mirabai, who is currently a Chief Ticket Inspector in the Indian Railways, rose quickly to become a world-class weightlifter, steadily.

From a total lift of 170kg, for a silver in the 2014 CWG in Glasgow, she came up with 186kg, to win gold in the 2016 Senior Nationals, after a disappointing show at the Rio Olympics.

She won the Commonwealth Championships gold in Australia, in July 2017, with a total lift of 189 kg (85+104), and then went on to become only the second Indian, after Karnam Malleswari, to win a gold at the World Championships in USA, in November 2017, with a total lift of 194kg (85+109).

Mirabai bettered it at the Gold Coast CWG to 196kg (86kg+110kg) and she is now aiming to lift over 200kg at the Asian Games, later, in 2018, which she says, will be done by improving her hand and leg movement coordination, during jerk lifts.

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“All top competitors, in Asian Games, will be there in Olympics, and if I win gold in Asian Games, I will have the confidence to win gold in Olympics also. However, to do that, I cannot remain at 196kg.”

“I have no weakness in the snatch, which is all about technique. However, I have to sort out my weakness in the jerk. I can do 115kg in clean, but I am not being able to do it in the jerk. I have to work on my hand and leg movement coordination, during jerk. If I do that, I will be able to lift 115kg in clean and jerk, and that should take my total lift above 200kg,” she said.

Talking about her CWG performance, she said, “I was very confident to win the gold. I was nervous at the Rio Olympics. However, after winning gold in World Championships, I was very confident and sure of winning a gold in the CWG.”

Mirabai is not perturbed or distracted by the frequent dope tests she had to undergo, at NIS Patiala. “WADA testers come twice or thrice in two months, but NADA comes very frequently. I am not at all worried or distracted by all these. I am a clean athlete.”