By Rimli Bhattacharya
“To be number one, you have to train like you’re number two” – Maurice Green
Born in Imphal East, Manipur, the 23-year-old Saikhom Mirabai Chanu bagged the gold medal in the 48 kg category at World Weightlifting Championship, 2017, held in Ahaheim, USA. She is the first Indian woman to win the gold medal after almost two decades. The last gold medal was won by Karnam Malleswari in 1995.
The village where Chanu grew up lacked the basic amenity for practicing weightlifting. However, even at the age of nine, she dreamt of being a weight lifter and looked up to Kunjarani Devi, another weight lifter from Manipur, as an inspiration.
Chanu began weightlifting in 2007 at Khuman Lampak Sports Complex in Imphal, India.
She travelled 60 kilometers every day to the State Weightlifting Center for training, where the local coaches instantly recognized her talent. Initially, she used to lift bamboo canes for six months before being allowed to hold the iron beam. It was former National Champion, Anita Chanu, who coached her for six months. Within a year, she won bronze at the youth nationals, beating other much senior contestants.
Weightlifting calls for muscular strength, the grip, and mental stamina. The arm and strength of the shoulders are determining factors in lifting that extra kilo. A protein diet is a must for each sportsman/woman. Her coach gave her the diet chart where it was mandatory to have chicken and milk for brawn. Mira did not have the luxury to buy a glass of milk every day. She stuck to junk food for robustness but it worked against her. She failed in her first event. That did not deter her tenacity; she rather used this setback to an opportunity.
From 2009 to 2013, she bagged gold medals at junior nationals, propelling her to the senior level. She won gold at the 2011 International Youth Championship, along with another gold medal at the South Asian Youth Games. She was awarded the title of the Best Lifter at the 2013 Junior National Championship, held in Guwahati, India.
Though she was propelled to the senior level at a very young age, it was challenging for her to give a tough fight to her seniors who had much better coaching facilities. She accomplished a stunning sixth position at the Thailand Championship in her first event as a senior because of her tremendous hard work. Chanu proved herself India’s strongest weightlifter by bagging silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, where she lifted 170 kgs.
At a national camp in Bangalore, she met Kunjarani Devi for the first time. Devi was ruthless when it came to training but she was an inspiration to all the young weight lifters. Mira followed the footprints of Devi and claimed the ninth position in the World Championship in 2015, when she smashed Devi’s twelve year old national record. She also broke Devi’s longstanding record in the snatch as she lifted 84kg at the Asian Championship in Tashkent in 2016. She matched the record for total lift of 190 kg, which was set by Devi herself.
Doping is a scourge in sports, particularly in weightlifting, as athletes try to improve the muscle strength. Chanu witnessed the failure of her close friend, who failed a doping test and decided to be careful about what she ate and drank. Chanu’s scandal-free weight lifting career proves that she is inspired by high idealism and fair play.
Before the Rio Olympics in 2016, her parents said to her that she would have to let go of weightlifting if she didn’t succeed at the showpiece event. However, she managed a disappointing performance in Rio. Following failure at the event, she battled depression, lost her sleep and appetite. However, she did not lose her courage. She practiced, improved, broke barriers, and forged ahead, finally leading to her success at the World Weightlifting Championship, 2017. Chanu was trailing Sukcharoen by 1 kg after the snatch event. In her final attempt, she decided to lift 109 kg. She said that she remembered her failure at Rio as she walked to the stage. As Indian Express reported,
To maintain her weight, Chanu hadn’t eaten since morning. She was starving. “But I closed my eyes and just focused on lifting the barbell,” she said. Her arms trembled, but Chanu didn’t flinch. She completed the lift and, for the first time, allowed herself a smile. She’d done her part. Now, her Thai competitor had to match the lift. “I couldn’t watch it. Moments later, Coach came and hugged me. That’s how I got to know I’d won the gold,” she says. “Now, I will see a different image when I close my eyes. And finally, I can go home.”
Manipur continues its tradition of producing India’s exceptional female lifters and sports women. Mirabai Chanu with her exceptional grit and determination is Manipur’s latest contribution to Indian sportslore.
Rimli Bhattacharya completed Mechanical Engineering from National Institute of Technology. She is a trained Indian classical dancer, based out of Mumbai, India. She tweets at: @rimli76
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