• Chanu didn’t give up for two reasons. A competitor from China who, like her, was a medal prospect in another category had a similar experience. And because Chanu’s mother simply told her, “thik ho jayega.”

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By Dhiman Sarkar

PUBLISHED ON JUL 24, 2021 09:41 PM IST

She was named by an elder sibling and even though her parents played football, archery was her preferred sport. Seeing that she could lift stuff her sons couldn’t, Mirabai Chanu’s mother asked her to consider “woh weight uthane ne ka game (sport where you lift weights)”. Chanu refused and went to the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal, hoping to be an archer.

“The office of the state archery federation was next to that of weightlifting. When I went there, a training session was on–the lifters were shouting, exhorting themselves. That energy attracted me. And I told Ma that weightlifting is what I want to do. Around this time, Kunjarani Devi’s achievements were part of our school curriculum. That led to a further spurt in interest,” said Chanu.

Also from Manipur, Devi is a seven-time world weightlifting championship silver medallist and winner of two Asian Games bronze medals in the 44kg category.

“That was in 2008. I was 14,” said Chanu. And a journey began that hasn’t ended with the 49kg Olympic silver on Saturday. A journey that almost didn’t get this far because she was sure she would quit after failing three clean-and-jerk attempts in Rio 2016.

“If I had one successful attempt, I could have got silver in Rio,” said Chanu, the only time she wasn’t her usually sunny self during an almost hour-long conversation in a central Kolkata hotel in February 2020. This was one day after she lifted 203kg (87kg snatch + 115 clean and jerk), bettering her national record to win the 49kg gold in the national championships. In a world still unaltered by Covid-19, one where Tokyo2020 was months from being deferred, Chanu spoke about how close she had come to quitting.

“The Olympics experience was good till I failed. After that I didn’t want to go anywhere. My mind had gone blank. Suddenly, it was like I had forgotten to do the jerk. Clean was easy,” she said. “Nervous ho gaya, it had never happened to me before.

“I had worked very hard and my performance was improving. I had trained for two weeks in Brazil. And then that happened. I told Sir (Vijay Sharma, her coach) I will quit. For five days, I didn’t feel like eating, I just stayed in my room and wept. Sir was crying too.”

She didn’t give up for two reasons. A competitor from China who, like Chanu, was a medal prospect in another category had a similar experience and Sharma, along with officials of the federation, used her example to tell Chanu that she wasn’t the only one. And because Chanu’s mother simply told her, “thik ho jayega.” “She asked me what was the next big event and I said, ‘the world championship in 2017.’ And she said, “you will do well there.”

Prescient words. Chanu won gold in the 48kg with a total of 194kg. After Rio, she had switched her phone off and got down to work with Sharma at Patiala’s Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports that has been home since 2012. “It is ultimately about your power to believe. You focus on training, you recalibrate goals and slowly those memories recede,” she said, softly but firmly.

When she was in the USA for the world championships, one of her sisters got married at home. “I told them to defer the wedding. They told me, it couldn’t be done and so I missed it,” she said, simply. Another sister got married while Chanu was in Kolkata for the senior national championship. “I ask them, why do you choose dates that clash with my events?”

Chanu is the youngest of four sisters and two brothers. The brothers, like their parents, play football. One joined the Army through football, the other works with the state police, she said. “I watch football but never really felt like playing it. My parents played at the village level.” One of her sisters is a nurse and another runs a beauty parlour, she said. Her father worked in the state public works department and her mother is a homemaker.

It was one of her sisters, “my second oldest didi” who named her. “She had a friend named Mirabai in school. They were very close and when they left school, my sister told her friend that she would name me after her,” said Chanu.

Three years after she signed up for weightlifting, Chanu got called to a camp in Bengaluru for the Asian and Commonwealth youth championships. Chanu said she took part in the Asian meet and was again called to a camp, this time in Patiala, in 2012. By then Kunjarani Devi was one of her coaches.

Unable to speak Hindi and living so far from home was hard and “a lot of tears were shed over phone calls.” A measure of how much things have changed could be gauged by this conversation happening mostly in Hindi.

“But at least then, I would go home for two weeks after, say, two months.” That changed when she became part of the core group of lifters. In February 2020, Chanu said she hadn’t been home for five months and wouldn’t till the Olympics, which hadn’t been deferred then. “You miss one day’s training you take a week to get back to where you were. So, except Sundays, which is a day of rest, we don’t miss training.”

That explained why Chanu didn’t attend her sister’s wedding. She was training every evening at the Khudiram Anishilan Kendra, the venue for the national championship, adjacent to Eden Gardens. Her schedule, she said, had lifting weights every morning and evening except Thursday when she worked out in the gym. “I also do strength training after Tuesday’s evening session.”

Chanu has had her share of injuries and after the high of 2017, she missed the Asian Games next year because her back played up, “suddenly when we were training in Himachal Pradesh.” It needed four months of rest and recovery under sports science and medicine expert Heath Matthews in Mumbai. “When I resumed, I couldn’t do 35kg in snatch,” said Chanu. Last year, Chanu went to USA to work on her back.

From 2014, Sharma has been Chanu’s coach. “He improved my technique, especially in clean and jerk. With Sir, it felt like I was learning all over again, I got stronger and could increase the intensity of my sessions. My diet too changed with more red meat which Sir would arrange for,” said Chanu. “In two years, 20kg up kar diya.”

If getting over the disappointment was a struggle, living with the notion that she is an Olympic medal hope brought a different kind of pressure. “I know all eyes are on me. To fail is not an option,” she said. So how does she deal with it? “I tell myself, I will go fully prepared, the rest is in God’s hands.”