Mumbai: From failing to lift in any of her three attempts in clean & jerk at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to winning a silver medal in Tokyo, life has come a long way for Indian weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu.
Mirabai, the 26-year-old from Manipur, finished second behind China’s Hou Zihui (210kg — 94 snatch & 116 clean & jerk) with a total of 202kg (87 in snatch and 115 in clean and jerk) to win the silver medal.
Indonesia’s Aisah Windy Cantika took the bronze medal with an aggregate of 194kg.
With this, Mirabai won India’s first medal in Tokyo and became the second weightlifter from the country to clinch an Olympic medal. Karnam Malleswari had won the country’s maiden medal in the sport at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Mirabai ended a two-decade-long drought in Indian weightlifting — a time in which the sport was tarnished by several doping scandals, including at the 2004 Athens Olympics when Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu disgraced the country. Mirabai’s medal will also be a balm for a sport that has always produced champions alongside dope cheaters over the years.
An employee of the Indian Railways, Mirabai’s entry into weightlifting was accidental. At the age of 12, she had gone to the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Manipur’s capital Imphal to gone to enrol herself in archery.
The archery centre was closed and Mirabai stepped into the nearby weightlifting arena to enquire about archery. Instead, she got hooked to the sport for life as the weights and weightlifting apparatus attracted her attention. As she had built her strength lugging firewood up and down the hills, weightlifting came easily to Mirabai.
For the next few years, she would travel nearly 20 km daily from her home in Mongkok Kakching village to the state capital Imphal for weightlifting training.
Mirabai moved to Delhi once she made a mark at the national level and soon made it to the national camp.
Her first breakthrough came at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games when she won the silver medal in the 48 kg weight category.
“She is very hardworking and determined and has a strong willpower, which is evident from her comeback after the disappointment she faced in Rio de Janeiro,” says N Kunjarani Devi, a legend in Indian women’s weightlifting, who has won more than 50 international medals including silver at World Championships.
Kunjarani said that Mirabai has come up the hard way, spending years away from home struggling with limited resources.
“Manipur is a small state, not so financially rich. Mirabai comes from a middle-class family and had to struggle a lot to pursue weightlifting. Her parents and family supported her and she also took care of them once she got a job with the Railways. She also got cash awards for winning medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. As a Manipuri, I feel proud that a girl from my home state has won India’s first medal at the Tokyo Olympics,” says Kunjarani, a senior officer with the CRPF posted in Delhi.
“Mirabai richly deserves all the accolades coming her way because she has proven that hard work always pays,” Kunjarani added.
In the last five years, Mirabai has won multiple accolades. She has been conferred upon with the Arjuna Award, was honoured with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2018, and the Padma Shri.
In 2017, she became the first Indian after Karnam Malleswari (1994) to win a gold medal at the World Weightlifting Championships. In 2018, she won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia. In April 2021, she set a world record in clean & jerk at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent.
But this was also the period when her struggles with injuries began, especially her shoulder and back.
In 2019, she went to the United States for a lengthy rehabilitation-cum-training camp under renowned strength and conditioning coach Dr. Aaron Horschig. Just before the Olympics, she had again flown to the United States to spend two weeks at Dr. Horschig’s academy as the injures had surfaced again and were troubling her.
While people following her career kept their fingers crossed as she flew from St. Louis to Tokyo, Mirabai had determination writ large on her face. She wanted to exorcise the ghost of the Rio Olympic Games once and for all.