Khel Ratna nominee Mirabai Chanu's rise from penury to being toast of the nation
After her success at the Commonwealth Games, Mirabai Chanu is targetting an Asian Games gold to add to her World Championship title.
She still uses the cycle to travel from her hostel to the weightlifting hall. She gets embarrassed when she gets mobbed for selfies in her home state of Manipur. The social media is flooded with congratulatory messages on her success but she has no Twitter account or a Facebook page. Mirabai Chanu maybe the reigning world champion and the top contender for this year's Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India's highest sporting honour, but she fends off any speculations on the awards.
"I want to stay grounded and do not want to lose focus from my ultimate aim. Winning the world championship was good but my target is the 2020 Olympics," said Mirabai currently training in Patiala.
Even the national coach Vijay Sharma and her childhood mentor Anita Chanu make a conscious effort to ensure the youngster is not distracted. After returning from Commonwealth Games with a gold medal last month, she was given just a four-day break to attend a government felicitation in her home state. But that will probably be the only break she will get in 2018 as the training for the Asian Games and the World Championship gather momentum.
"I keep telling her that she should not rest till she ensures an Olympic gold," said Anita, a former international weightlifter who first spotted Mirabai as a talented 14-year-old destined for bigger things. "All the sacrifices I have made will come to nothing if I don't win the Olympic medal," reiterated Mirabai.
She skipped her sister Chaya's wedding as it clashed with her world championship training but got the perfect gift for her family when she became the first Indian weightlifter since Karnam Malleshwari to win a world championship gold.
"I miss my family but besides it, I miss gorging on pizzas and burgers which were my favourites. My strict diet plan has forced me to give up on the Manipuri delicacy of iromba, a dish made of fermented fish and chilly paste as it is too spicy," rued the weightlifter.
Mirabai grew up in Nongpok Kakching, a small village near Imphal. As a child, she competed against boys in all sports including athletics. But the first inspiration to take up a sport seriously came from the school classroom.
"We had a lesson in the eight standard on the achievements of Manipuri sportspersons. The moment I read about Kunjarani Devi and Mary Kom, I knew I wanted to be like them though I was not sure what sport I should pursue.
"My two brothers used to play football at the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex and I decided to accompany them. I started with archery but it was weightlifting which caught my attention,’’ recollected Mirabai.
"She had the right body structure for weightlifting. She was short with the right muscle mass and during her initial training, I could make out, she had the potential to make it big,’" remembered Anita.
Mirabai's father worked in PWD department in the Manipuri government and his salary was hardly enough to take care of his six children. If Mirabai wanted to take up a sport seriously, it would be a further dent in the finances of the family and her parents were not very keen to on Mirabai pursuing weightlifting.
"It was hand to mouth existence for the family and I visited the family and requested them to allow Mirabai to continue with the sport. Despite the financial struggles, they relented and Mirabai started to win medals at various age group competitions," narrated Anita.
"I started with junior state level tournaments and though I did not win medals initially, it made me more determined to make a stronger bid for medals in the future events. I had fallen in love with the sport and I knew it was my life's calling," said Mirabai, whose first major success in the international arena was the silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games as she finished behind Sanjita Chanu.
Much was expected from her as she made the cut for the Rio Olympics but disaster struck. She registered no lifts in all her three attempts and a heartbroken Mirabai decided to give up the sport.
"Luckily, she had a strong family support who convinced her not to take such a drastic step. But once she rejoined training, she was a different person, willing to work harder and the results reflected in her performance in the world championship," said Vijay Sharma.
"The World Championship gold medal was the atonement for the debacle in Rio and everything was forgotten. She is now firmly back on track for yet another shot at glory in the Olympics," added Sharma.
After the world championship success, cash rewards and fame have followed. In the state of Manipur, she is the latest role model. "Inspired by her story, many parents from remote villages are coming to my academy with their children wanting them to become weightlifters," said Anita.
Mirabai Chanu's next big test is the Asian Games in August, where she has to live up to her top billing. She is expected to face a tough challenge from Thunya Sukcharoen of Thailand whom she had edged out to the second place in the World Championship.
In absence of China, which continues to face a ban from international weightlifting events because of doping charges, Thailand and Vietnam are the new powerhouses of women weightlifting in Asia. The Manipuri lifter is looking to overhaul her personal best of 196 kilograms to inch closer to the 200 kilograms. At the practice sessions, she has been touching 199 kilograms.
If she is able to replicate it in Jakarta, Mirabai can add the Asian Games gold medal to her mantelpiece, proof of the giant strides taken by the puny girl adding yet another golden chapter to her incredible journey.
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