Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu back on track chasing her Olympic dreams after recovering from career-threatening injury
Mirabai Chanu had a disappointing outing at the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, after triumphing at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games, she's gunning for gold at the Tokyo Olympics
Inside the resplendent Ashoka Hall of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, it took time for Mirabai Chanu to let the enormity of the occasion to sink in. The giant paintings adorning the ceremonial hall and the dazzling chandeliers hanging in from the ceiling created a dreamy illusion as if she was transported to a different world. But she soon recovers from the reverie. The reality hits her and Mirabai realises she is seated beside the Indian cricket captain Virat Kohli at the official function where she will be bestowed with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award — the highest honour in the country for excellence in sport. Flashbulbs blind her, there is a scrimmage for sound bytes by the media, words of encouragement from the President of India, greetings from some of the country's greatest sportspersons.
"It feels surreal that I was the centre of all the attention because I am not used to it. The image of Mirabai in the eyes of the people has undergone a transformation. Whenever my parents go to the market, people refer to them as Mirabai's parents. That is a proud feeling for me. But mein to wo hi Mirabai hoon (I am the same Mirabai)," says the 2017 world weightlifting champion and one of India's brightest medal prospects in the Tokyo Olympics.
Away from the transient grandeur and the media hype, it's a lonely world of sweat, blood and tears for the next two years but Mirabai revels in it. "In the last two years, she has seen it all. The disappointment at Rio Olympics where she failed to register a single lift in her three attempts, a stirring comeback to become a world champion and then a career-threatening back problem that forced her to withdraw from Asian Games and this year's World Championship. This rollercoaster journey has made her stronger. It helps that she is so grounded and hardly gets swayed by fame and her new-found celebrity status," says Vijay Sharma, her coach who is overseeing her training for Mission Tokyo.
Mirabai's day at the Netaji Subhash Institute of Sports in Patiala begins at 6.15 am with a short ride on her cycle from her residential hostel for a session of running and a stretching exercises. This is followed by checking her body weight to ensure her diet and fitness regimen are in place. Mirabai had won the world championship and the Commonwealth Games gold competing in the 48kg category but this weight group has been scrapped in the Olympics and other international weightlifting events. She will now have to compete in the 49 kg category. But this is a minor adjustment and poses not much of a headache for Team Mirabai. After a breakfast which consists of fruits and four egg whites, Mirabai heads towards the weightlifting hall to start her two and a half hour lifting session. Her first international tournament after the Commonwealth Games will be the Asian Championship in China in April next year. This is one of the qualifying events for the Olympics and a good showing here can ensure a berth in Tokyo. Ranking points earned in World Championship, Commonwealth and Asian championships will be used to determine the lifters who will make the cut at the 2020 Olympics.
At the world championship in 2017, Mirabai had lifted a total of 194 kg to clinch the gold edging out Thailand's Thunya Sukcharoen by just one kilogram. In the Commonwealth Games, Mirabai improved on this performance by logging 196 kg. But if the results of this year's World Championship is anything to go by, Mirabai will have to raise the bar to ensure a podium finish in the future big events. Four of the participants in the 49 kg category had registered lifts of over 200kg with Chayuttra Pramongkhol of Thailand coming on top with 209 kg. "Since Mirabai has just returned from a back injury, we do not want to put too much stress on her. So it will be a gradual climb towards these marks," reveals Sharma. Mirabai has targeted lifts of over 200 kg in her forthcoming tournaments. But like her coach, she does not want to rush to prevent a recurrence of the back problem.
"After the success of Commonwealth Games, we were certain of a gold in the Asian Games before tragedy struck. We were at the high altitude training centre in Himachal Pradesh when she first complained of a back pain. Within days, from a minor twinge, it had flared up and she could not even lift light weights. Doctors could not diagnose and we had to eventually pull out of the Asian Games," Sharma says. "It was the toughest period of my career. At one time, when none of the medicines were working and the pain was getting unbearable, I was even planning to give up the sport. But then, my mother told me to cling on. She said that since I have worked so hard to reach this level, I should not give up so easily. Luckily, my patience paid off and hopefully, the worst is over," says Mirabai.
After a strenuous lifting session, Mirabai breaks for lunch which consists of grilled fish or prawns, green salad and sweet potato. After a rest in the afternoon, Mirabai returns to the lifting hall for another three and a half hours of rigorous training. Between lifting weights, Mirabai mingles with the other junior lifters passing on handy tips. "Her technique is so perfect and I always insist the youngsters watch her leg position and arms. Her sheer presence in the camp has lifted the performance of the junior lifters. For example, a youngster like Jhilli Dhalabehera, who was lifting around 167 kg a few months ago in 49 kg class is now lifting 174kg, after she started training with Mirabai," asserts Sharma.
The dinner consists of red meat strictly devoid of carbohydrates before it is time to hit the pillow with a book in hand. You will not often associate a weightlifter to be fond of history but Mirabai is an exception. "I love reading about Manipuri history. I am especially enamoured with the tales of the various rulers of the land. Reading helps me to keep focussed and helps the mind to be alert. It is a myth that a sport like weightlifting is all about brawns. It does involve brains, be it while training or even during competitions." On days when the history books fail to lull her to sleep, it is Bollywood music that comes to her rescue. "I may not be a film buff but I love music. Neha Kakkar is my favourite singer."
Neither the intriguing tales of the Manipuri rulers or the soothing voice of Neha Kakkar can hold her up for too long. She will need to sleep to be fresh for the next morning. Another long day awaits as she chases her ultimate dream — Olympic glory.
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