Shushila Devi: How a Manipur Farmer’s Daughter Became India’s Greatest Judoka

shushila devi

One of India’s finest judokas and a silver medallist at Commonwealth Games 2022, Manipur's Shushila Devi Likmabam has come a long way from battling depression and selling her car to fund her career.

In the ongoing Commonwealth Games in Birmingham this year, judoka Shushila Devi Limbambam clinched the silver medal in the women’s judo 48 kg final, narrowly losing to Michaela Whitebooi of South Africa. This is Sushila’s second CWG silver, after the first one at Glasgow in 2014. 

The road to silver for this 27-year-old from Manipur was no easy journey. On Monday, she played with stitches on her knee.

“What Shushila did was beyond expectations. We were counting on her for a medal, but to beat the top seed and win a medal is incredible,” India’s chief judo coach Jiwan Kumar Sharma told Hindustan Times. “We were just hoping that her stitches should not come out. It’s been a difficult phase for her after she injured herself at the camp in Delhi and also could not go for the exposure tour.”

Her win has earned her much applause and glory, with people across the nation acknowledging that the sportswoman had overcome many obstacles to achieve this feat. 

Well-deserved silver after injuries and financial struggles

Judo runs in Shushila’s family — her uncle, Dinit Singh, was an international judo player and her brother Shilakshi Singh was a national gold medallist in the sport. 

Born in February 1995 in Heingang, East Imphal, Shushila herself took up the sport when she was only around five years old. “I used to accompany my elder brother everywhere. My uncle was also an international judo player, so I got the basic training at home,” Sushila told India Today. 

She started training when she was seven in a judo academy at Khuman Lampak, which was 30 minutes from their house. Everyday, the siblings would wake up at 5.30 am and leave home at 6, with Shushila riding pillion behind her brother. 

They then trained at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal, from where she was selected to train at the National Centre of Excellence in Patiala. 

Back then, playing at the international level was not even on her radar, she told Sportstar. “I just liked the sport. Patiala had top athletes from various disciplines and I used to see how they trained and practised. I used to look up to the likes of Mary Kom and the top judokas. I used to watch their practice sessions.” 

Her talent stood apart regardless. Sharma told The Indian Express, “I remember she couldn’t speak a word of Hindi. We saw how good and talented she was during the trials. But we didn’t know she’d reach the Olympics one day.”

However, despite her talent, money remained a huge issue for the judoka. Her parents were farmers and she had to take loans to travel around the world. As her brother said, “The farm at home is just a farm in name. It’s a tiny place, we used to manage to grow enough vegetables for us, maybe sell a few of the excess stuff. But it was not enough.” 

In fact, at one point in time, she had to sell her car to support her career. Her brother says that while his hometown provided his sister unwavering support, not many had the means to financially support her. 

In 2018, her career faced another major hurdle when she suffered a hamstring injury just before the Asian Games trial. “I was shattered. I felt my judo career was over. The goal was to qualify for the Asian Games and use that as a platform to prepare for the Olympics. I was heartbroken and went back home for three months to take a break,” she said.

Coach Sharma told The Indian Express, “In judo, you have to compete at many tournaments — 20-30 odd — before you can qualify. But the government hadn’t cleared her travel for most of them. She had to pay from her own pocket, that’s why she’d be travelling alone and that’s how the financial struggle started.” 

The two trips she funded herself — one in Japan and one in Budapest, Hungary — proved futile. When she went to Osaka in November 2019, she didn’t hear her name being announced, and therefore couldn’t compete. In Budapest, she couldn’t compete as she was 500 gm overweight. 

Despite all this, with Sharma’s help, she was back on track after winning silver medals at the Hong Kong Asia Open in 2018 & 2019. He set up tickets and sponsors for her and she qualified for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. 

As the judoka secures her much-deserved win, her struggles thus far only summarise her unending drive, and what it means to never give up. 

Sources
‘CWG: On a day of near-misses, a silver lining as judoka Shushila, a farmer’s daughter, finishes on podium’ by Shashank Nair for The Indian Express, Published on 2 August, 2022
‘Tokyo 2020: Sushila Devi overcame depression, injuries to become India’s lone judoka at the Olympics’ by Pratyush Raj for India Today, Published on 15 July, 2021
‘Shushila Devi clinches silver in judo 48kg final, wins 7th medal for India at Commonwealth Games 2022’ Published on 01 August, 2022 Courtesy Hindustan Times
‘Who is Shushila Devi – Indian judoka won silver in the 48kg judo final at Commonwealth Games’ Published on 01 August, 2022 Courtesy Sportstar

Edited by Divya Sethu

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