Mirabai Chanu: Silver lining in otherwise dark clouds for India

- July 28, 2021
| By : Chander Shekhar Luthra |

Overcoming hurdles, Mirbai Chanu ended India’s wait for a meal in weightlifting at the Olympics after an interval of 21 years As India’s latest sweetheart Mirabai Chanu climbed onto the podium in Tokyo to receive her Silver Medal after her scintillating performance, every Indian glued to their television sets noticed her “Olympic ring-shaped earrings” as she […]

Mirabai Chanu, created history when she won the Silver Medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the women’s 49 kg category PHOTO: Getty

Overcoming hurdles, Mirbai Chanu ended India’s wait for a meal in weightlifting at the Olympics after an interval of 21 years

As India’s latest sweetheart Mirabai Chanu climbed onto the podium in Tokyo to receive her Silver Medal after her scintillating performance, every Indian glued to their television sets noticed her “Olympic ring-shaped earrings” as she was kissing her medal. These were the same earrings that her mother got made especially for her five years ago, just before the 2016 Rio Games, after selling her jewellery. Sekhom Ongbi Tombi Lima, her mother, told her then that these are going to bring her “good luck”.

That didn’t happen in Rio then, but Mirabai religiously wore her mother’s good luck blessings on the morning of her competition on Saturday (July 24). Her mother, too, noticed it sitting at her home in Manipur.

“I saw the earrings on TV. I gave them to her in 2016 before the Rio Olympics. I had made these with the gold lying with me and my savings, so that her luck shines and she gets success,” was how Lima replied when asked if she told her to wear those earrings in Tokyo.  Mirabai knew then and there that how happy her mother would be on watching her realising her dream of winning a medal for India. 

Mirabai also ended India’s 21-year wait for a weightlifting medal at the Olympics with a silver medal in the women’s 49 kg category and also opened India’s medal tally at the Tokyo Games. The 26-year-old Mirabai lifted a total of 202 kg (87 kg + 115 kg), outperforming Karnam Malleswari, the bronze medallist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. 

Along with this, Mirabai also left her 2016 Rio Olympics disappointment behind when she failed to make a valid attempt.

Pain ‘n’ success

But reaching the podium was not that easy for Mirabai. It was only a day before the competition that Mirabai suddenly developed menstrual cramps after her final practice session on Friday. There was no other way now for her coach Vijay Sharma and the entire support staff to shift swiftly to Plan B in such an emergency scenario. Mirabai’s lower abdomen was in pain and she got tense thinking about her medal match in a few hours. 

As an athlete, she had faced it many times before in her career and knew how to deal with such a situation. It was nothing new for any female athlete to experience a disturbed menstrual cycle because of anxiety, heavy workload or intense training.

She had a similar experience the day before her gold medal at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in the 48kg category. But she didn’t let that affect her performance then. And she was determined to not affect it even in Tokyo. 

Mirabai was confident about lifting as much as she was consistently doing during the practice sessions. She was targeting the gold and not the silver despite having champion Chinese lifter Hou Zhihui in front of her. But that was not to be as Mirabai’s performance took a hit during the final, when she missed those two lifts — 89kg in snatch and 117kg in clean and jerk) which she was lifting during her practice sessions.  Indonesia’s Windy Cantika Aisah settled for silver with a total lift of 194 kg.

Nevertheless, Mirabai lifted Indian and otherwise low spirits of Indian camp in Tokyo.

After staying away from her home for five years, Mirabai knew that it’s now her time to be with her family for a few days. She has hardly spent less than a dozen days at her home in all these years. And with her training to resume around August 10 for the Commonwealth Championship, she can’t afford to wait any longer to be with her mother.

Overcoming hurdles

Her period away from home was as challenging as her opponents in the competition. After the Rio disappointment, Mirabai had switched off her phone to avoid any distractions. She had some anxious personal moments when she had to miss her sister’s marriage during the time of her World Championships in the US. She wanted the marriage to be postponed, but the family had their compulsion. As this was not enough, another of her sisters got married while she was in Kolkata for the senior National Championship. 

But her biggest challenge came when she was confined to her room inside the National Institute of Sports in Patiala after the nationwide lockdown was declared and Tokyo Games in 2020 were postponed for a year. And resuming training was not that easy for her because of shoulder and back issues. Luckily, the government helped her to fly to the US for timely treatment under the observation of Dr Aaron Horschig.

Dr Horschig herself was a former weightlifter, now turned physical therapist and strength and conditioning coach. Her treatment for muscle imbalance immensely benefited Mirabai as she won a bronze at the Asian Championship with a world record clean and jerk lift of 119kg in April.

The muscle imbalance was not the first hurdle Chanu had to face in the run-up to Tokyo. It was after her gold-medal-winning performances in the 2017 World Championship and Commonwealth Games a year later, that Mirabai had to miss the 2018 Asian Games due to a mysterious back problem. That was the reason that Mirabai flew again to the US for a 50-day camp ahead of the Tokyo Games.

Background bumpy, future bright

For any common Indian, knowing about Mirabai’s struggle is hard to imagine.  It’s hard to understand how even leading a normal life in Manipur takes a lot from any individual. The bumpy roads, cooking without gas and struggle to get safe drinking water soaks almost all the energy of any individual.

Her first lifting lessons came from lifting ‘bundles of firewoods’ she used to fetch as a child from a forest near her village in Kakching. Her mother is witness to how Mirabai used to volunteer for carrying the heaviest of bundles as a child. So, lifting iron weight later on in her life came as natural progress.

It was only during her early growing days when she encountered a situation where she had to take a call between either archery or weightlifting. There was confusion in the minds of her loved ones, but her decision to pursue weightlifting over archery has now been justified. Manipur has a population of 27 lakh, a fraction of any big Indian state. 

Yet, it has given so many world-renowned sportspersons to India. Late Dingko Singh arrived at the Indian sporting scene at the height of the insurgency in this part of the world. 

Dingko was the inspiration for many more generations to come when he won boxing gold at the 1998 Bangkok Asian Games. Mirabai’s coach Kunjarani Devi and six-time World Boxing Champion MC Mary Kom have guided the youth of these northeast states. And Mirabai is yet another product of that hope that has been fighting drugs and AIDS.  Mirabai had seen all this. 

With three more sisters and two brothers, Mirabai relatives and acquaintances came from far off places to her home to watch her competition on television. Many of them had come a day or two early to not miss this opportunity. Altogether, 50 or more people sat in an open verandah to watch Mirabai create history. With many journalists from the nearby region also joining them, the scene at Mirabai’s home was that of a festival. 

At this point, Mirabai called over her mother to seek her blessings just before the final competition. She called over a video call from Tokyo Weightlifting Arena and that moment of watching her mother speaking in a choked voice to Mirabai in Tokyo made everyone present there ‘emotional’.

Soon, the emotions erupted in joy as she created history in front of them.


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