Mirabai Chanu’s journey to silver in Tokyo Olympics


Guwahati: India’s star weightlifter Mirabai Chanu created history on Saturday as she became the first Indian weightlifter to win the silver medal.  She won the medal in the women’s 49kg event on Day 1 of the Tokyo Olympics 2020. Also, This is India’s first at the Tokyo Games.

The weightlifter delivers to her promise and wins a silver medal for India at the Tokyo Olympics. The 26-year-old Manipuri lass becomes the second Indian weightlifter after Karnam Malleswari to win an Olympic medal since the veteran last won a bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games.

The lone Indian weightlifter to qualify for Tokyo earns a redemption of her disappointing show at the 2016 Rio Olympics, where she had failed to record a legal lift in any of her three attempts in clean & jerk and thus did not get an overall total.

Mirabai’s narrative is not about a prodigal talent but someone who found the right opportunity to pursue her interest. An obsession with being neat and tidy almost drove her to be an archer.

In an interview with PTI Mirabai had said, “All my brothers and cousins play football, but they would come back home dirty after a day’s play. I wanted to play a sport which is neat and clean. At first, I wanted to be an archer, as they are neat and clean and stylish”. 

As a 13-year-old girl from a low-income family at the nondescript Nongpok Kakching village, around 20km from Manipur’s capital Imphal, Mirabai decided early in her life that she would earn fame as a sportsperson.

In the quest to find a sports facility and a mentor, she travelled with a cousin to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) Centre, at Khuman Lampak in Imphal, in early 2008.

However, she did not find any archer training that day. Lucky for us, she saw clippings of the legendary Manipuri weightlifter Kunjarani Devi, which inspired her to the core.

So, after a few days, she went to the weightlifting training centre and luckily met former international weightlifter and coach Anita Chanu, and she initiated Mirabai into the sport. Mirabai toiled hard at that young age to adjust her training to her school schedule. She had to reach the training centre every day at 6 am and change the bus twice from her village on a 22km journey.

Mirabai was a strong girl. She could lift more firewood than her elder brother at the tender age of 12. She also used cut woods at nearby hills, brought them up by herself, and then fetched water from nearby ponds in milk powder cans.

Mirabai, who got a job as a Chief Ticket Inspector in the Indian Railways, became a world-class weightlifter steadily.

She lifted 170kg to win a silver in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and then came up with 186kg to win gold in the 2016 Senior Nationals after a disappointing show at the Rio Olympics. Chanu’s return since her Rio debacle has been a remarkable one, to say the least.

She first silenced her detractors by winning the gold in the 2017 World Championships and then the Commonwealth Games a year later. Besides, the diminutive Manipuri also overcame an unspecified back problem, which marred her progress in 2018, and changed her weight category to 49kg from her original 48 kg. Making a come back in February last year, Mirabai continued to compete in different events till the pandemic-induced break.

However, her body was frail with the pain of dreadful injuries. In 2020, her coach Vijay Sharma decided to take Chanu to St. Louis, USA to train and recover under Dr. Aaron Horschig, a former weightlifter who is one of the most eminent physiotherapists in the States, having worked with the Major League Baseball (MLB), America’s National Football League (NFL), football players and Olympic weightlifters.

An evaluation of Chanu’s condition spelt some scary conclusions — right shoulder instability and weakness, left shoulder mobility restrictions, left hip mobility, and stability problems.

The asymmetries led to excessive loads on the firmer side, leading to imbalances. For the moment, though, the coach, athlete, and physio feel the physical problems have been rectified. Horschig showed the path for recovery to Chanu, which was reflected in her performance at the Asian Championships this year, where she created the erstwhile world record.

The sum up her entire journey, Mirabai was the first India who could catch up to the Chinese weightlifters; beating the gold medallist Hou Zhihui in clean & jerk never looked possible till Chanu’s ability to prove her mettle came in front of the world. An Olympic medal puts Mirbai in the Indian sports’ Hall of Fame and at the top-echelons of weightlifting, attained by none.