Six-time world champion and London Olympics bronze medallist M. C. Mary Kom’s body may not be as supple as it was 20 years ago, but the 38-year-old’s mind is still strong as a rock – yet flexible like rubber. Add to this a dash of anticipation, an essential element in a boxer’s armoury, and you see what sets the legendary boxer apart.
Mary showcased all this – much before she could bank on her immeasurable boxing skills and wisdom inside the ring at the Tokyo Games – when she abruptly shifted her training base from Pune to Assisi, Italy, to avoid any roadblocks in reaching the Olympics amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
At this point of her career, Mary knows she can ill-afford to take any chances, especially with the uncertainty triggered by the deadly virus. She became an Olympic medallist nine years ago, but her dream was only partially accomplished. She has another chance to achieve her ambition of being an Olympic gold medallist after missing out on a berth at the Rio Games.
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Mary never wanted to leave Pune, the city where she had trained in the run-up to London 2012, and was happy sparring with a variety of boxers, including her India teammates Manju Rani and Sonia Lather and a bunch of male pugilists from the Army Sports Institute. But she acted according to the situation.
“I am working on a lot of areas as you have to be the best in all aspects of your game before an event like the Olympics. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned and most importantly I want to keep things simple rather than overdoing anything because of the Olympics,” Mary told Sportstar in an interview.
“My experience helps me stay calm rather than getting overawed by the big occasion. Also, I am focusing a lot on finetuning the technical and tactical aspects of my game.”
Even at the height of her popularity and fame as an international sporting icon, Mary, a mother of three, is honest about the challenges of the times. “It has certainly been very challenging not only for me, but for everyone due to the unprecedented events in the last one-and-a-half year. The entire world has changed so much in such a short time, and it took me a long time to adjust to the new normal. The Olympics got postponed and we had to start everything from scratch due to the disruption in training and tournaments, which was indeed the worst trial on my patience. But I have overcome it with my determination to fulfil my dreams at the Olympics,” she says. “The second wave was a very tough time for everyone. Each day throws a different kind of challenge and there is a lot of uncertainty in the world we live in right now. But I also believe that this time period has made me mentally tougher and more determined to achieve my goals.”
The other challenge could be facing a bunch of youthful boxers inside the ring. But, for Magnificent Mary, age is just a number.
“Boxing is my life and I don’t need any motivation or extra push to stay fit for boxing. I believe that age is just a number and everything is possible if a person is determined and has strong willpower. Everyone knows that I am very determined about my goals. After more than two decades of boxing, I know my body well. I also know how to take care of it. I also believe a lot in smart work now, and taking care of small details right from diet to training makes a huge impact in the long run.”
Mary does not pick anyone in particular as a tough rival as she knows that she cannot undermine any opponent at the biggest stage.
“My experience of participating in the London Olympics taught me that there are no easy bouts at an event like the Olympics. All the boxers who participate in the Olympics are the best in the world and anyone can beat anyone on a given day. You have to be equally prepared for everyone and not take anyone lightly.”
After spending more than two decades in international boxing, Mary may not come across too many familiar faces and may even feel like a stranger when she takes the canvas in Tokyo. But she hardly cares.
“Ha…ha! Honestly, I feel I have never got the time to think about all this. Sometimes it feels like yesterday that I started boxing and everything has happened so quickly. I don’t feel like a stranger at all because the basics of boxing are the same and will never change. No matter how young or old you are, you are going to be defined by what you do inside the ring for those nine minutes of the bout.”
One has to ask Mary whether her iconic status gives her an advantage inside the ring.
“I can’t imagine my life without boxing, and every time I step into the ring, since I started my career, I feel a sense of pride and responsibility that I have to give everything for my country, family, friends and wellwishers. I have always felt very confident and fearless inside the ring because boxing is the only thing I know in my life. I always believe that I am fighting for something bigger than myself and I treat that as a privilege rather than pressure.”
As she marches on in the last leg of her celebrated career, Mary has witnessed many changes including the increasing role of sports science in an athlete’s life. Several things remain constant though.
Flag bearers Harmanpreet Singh of India and Mary Kom Hmangte of India lead their contingent during the athletes’ parade at the opening ceremony. – REUTERS
“Though there have been a lot of additions on the technological front, one thing that I use the most and benefit from is video analysis as it helps us a lot in learning about our mistakes and preparing accordingly. And of course, it (sports science) helps me track my fitness level better and train appropriately and more systematically.”
Among the constant features in her career in the last few years, her personal coach Chhote Lal Yadav, a former national champion and South Asian Games gold medallist, is one. Mary is at least five years older than Yadav and has far more experience, but she values his inputs a lot.
“I have been working with him for a long time now and he knows about my game inside out. He is very quick to identify my mistakes and that helps us in rectifying them quickly. His reading of the game is very sharp and he has the ability to think on his feet and come up with a new strategy as per the situation of the bout. He is very upfront and honest in his assessment of my game and that keeps on pushing me,” says Mary.
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Besides her own goal, Mary is optimistic about the overall showing of the Indian boxers in Tokyo.
“The past few years have been really good for Indian boxing and we have taken a giant leap in terms of medals won internationally across all levels and in making India a strong boxing nation. I think we have a really strong team this time and we are in a much better position compared to the last few Olympics. The Sports Authority of India (SAI), the Boxing Federation of India (BFI), the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and all the stakeholders have done a commendable job in the last four-five years for us to be in such a good position,” says Mary.
Individually, when Mary – who deservedly will be the joint flagbearer of the Indian contingent at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics – walks into Kokugikan Arena with her aura and experience, thousands of miles away, billions of Indians will pray for the strong-willed champion’s success in the Japanese capital.
M. C. Mary Kom begins her quest for an Olympic gold medal with her women’s flyweight round-of-32 bout against Miguelina Hernandez Garcia of the Dominican Republic at 13:30 India time on July 25.