#ChasingTheGold: Meet Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, India’s Hope for a Gold in Women’s Weightlifting

#ChasingTheGold: A series on the lesser known stories of India’s sporting stars, presented by The Better India in collaboration with Knappily, the Knowledge App.

For Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, the inspirational weightlifter from Manipur, its medal or nothing at the Olympics this year!

Saikhom Mirabai Chanu’s unbending will has seen her through many challenges and obstacles. As the weightlifter makes her way to the Rio Olympics, age, stamina and perseverance are on her side, making her the hope of the nation.

WHAT

What makes Mirabai stand out?

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Photo Source: Twitter

“My parents asked me to quit if I didn’t make it to Rio, so I had no option,” Mirabai says.

  • Mirabai made her dream an obsession and always went the extra mile to achieve it. Whether it was travelling 60 km a day for training, or tackling economic hardships, she refused to let her circumstances define her life.
  • Her family’s financial problems meant that she could not afford the daily diet of milk and chicken prescribed to all sportspersons. She took the resultant drop in performance in her stride; she chose to view it as a passing phase and decided instead, to focus on her goal.
  • When she needed to shift permanently to Imphal for training, her parents were worried that they would not be able afford the move. She struck a deal with them, promising to quit the sport if she did not qualify for the Olympics. Fortunately for the country, she did.
  • These were not the only hurdles Mirabai had to overcome. She also had to battle an indifferent media and an apathetic government. Mirabai faced all her challenges head-on, emerging victorious every single time.

WHY

Why should you follow Mirabai at Rio?

  • Her excellent performance and remarkable improvement over the last couple of years has made Mirabai an outstanding weightlifter and a strong contender at the Olympics.
  • Since winning a silver medal in the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Glasgow, where she lifted 170 kg, Mirabai’s progress has been steady. Her performance in three consecutive major tournaments that year were proof of her prowess in weightlifting.
  • In 2015, her achievements included a ninth place in the World Championships and this year, at the trials for the Olympics, she broke the nearly twelve-year old national record set by the widely-celebrated, multiple-award-winner Kunjarani Devi. Age and stamina are on clearly on Mirabai’s side.
  • For India, Mirabai’s medal would mean holding its head high again, after a series of setbacks since Karnam Malleshwari won the bronze medal at the Olympic Games in 2000.

WHEN

When did Mirabai take to weightlifting?

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Mirabai (left)

Photo Source: Twitter
  • It all started with a dream when she was nine years old. Having watched what she now thinks was Kunjarani Devi’s performance at the 2004 Olympics, little Mirabai dreamt of holding a medal on the podium. That was her calling and she never looked back.
  • She began by facing the first hardship of cycling the long distance from her village to the training centre every day.
  • It was sheer will power rather than innate physical strength, that saw her through the grueling training phase at the start of her career.
  • She had to lift bamboo canes for six months before being allowed to hold an iron bar.
  • Once she got started, there was simply no stopped her; at 11, she won gold at the sub-junior level and went on to repeat her excellent performance at the junior nationals in 2011.

WHO

 Who are Mirabai’s competitors?

  • China’s likely candidate 18-year-old Hou Zhihui lifted a phenomenal 210 kg totally, during the Olympic trials. Two other candidates – Ryang Chun Hwa of North Korea and Khamsri Panida of Thailand recorded 196 kg and 194 kg lifts – narrow leads over Mirabai. In addition, three other contenders are almost at the same level as her.
  • Mirabai, a debutant, will be competing against Japanese veteran Hiromi Miyake, a silver medalist in the 2012 Olympics and a bronze winner in the World Championships of 2015. Her record last November was a total of 193 kg.
  • The close contest scenario requires Mirabai to improve her performance by a couple of kilos in a short span of time. This is a challenge, given that she is already at the higher end of her potential.

WHO

Who is Mirabai’s support system?   

4Photo Source: Twitter

Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi is the most decorated Indian sportswoman in weightlifting. A recipient of the Arjuna Award (1990) and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (1996), she has bagged numerous medals in the Commonwealth Games and in the World Championships. When she finally got a shot at the 2004 Games, Kunjarani Devi was placed fifth, beaten to bronze by 10 kg. She was later moved to the fourth position, after the Thai lifter, who came fourth, tested positive for drugs.

Mirabai, chosen as participant of a national camp at Bangalore, met Kunjarani Devi there for the first time. When she realized that the coach showed her tough side only during training, she began to bond with her on a personal level and followed her back to the national camp at Patiala in 2013. Kunjarani is now Mirabai’s driving force as a coach who eggs her on to shatter her own records.

HOW

How important are the Games to Mirabai?

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Photo Source: Twitter
  • To say that Mirabai’s win would bring about a sea change in how Indians perceive the sport would be sadly untrue as the barely-noticed feats of previous women achievers in various fields of sport have proved.
  • That she should win because if she loses, she would fade away and all her marathon efforts would come to nothing rings more true.
  • She has come this far because her continued involvement with the sports she loved was contingent on her winning medals as a way of life.
  • To have more sportswomen like Mirabai, we have to make the sports environment more conducive for higher female participation – recognize, respect and reward the numerous deserving sportswomen who have battled against all odds to achieve accolades in their chosen field.

Wishing her the very best.

Knappily, short for Knowledge Application Daily, is India’s highest-rated digital magazine that analyses news and features in its unique 5W1H framework, helping readers gain a 360-degree view on them. The app is free, and can be downloaded from Play Store or App Store.

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