Weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu scripted history when she claimed a silver medal in the women’s 49kg weight category to open India’s account on the first day of medal events in the Tokyo Olympics.
The first Indian weightlifter to bag a medal after Karnam Malleswari in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Mirabai got a hero’s welcome when she landed in Delhi.
Her homecoming in Imphal was even more spectacular as she took part in a seven km long procession, despite the Covid restrictions, from the airport to the spot where she was felicitated by the Manipur Government.
For days together, fans and well-wishers thronged her home in Nongpok Kakching village to wish the champion lifter for her feat. Besides, there were never ending requests for interviews from media houses from all nooks and corners of the country.
The pint-sized lifter not only handled her new-found stardom with amazing ease, but also showed exemplary poise and energy to entertain all requests with unlimited patience and grace.
The 25-year-old found some time from her hectic schedule to speak to Sportstar at length about her extraordinary journey in the last five years that saw her march on through struggle and pain to achieve her target of climbing the podium in Tokyo.
You have been showered with love, blessings and gifts and felicitated by different organisations and individuals. Have you realised that you have become a sporting hero of the country?
Yes. People have given a lot of love and affection. I got a royal welcome on my return. Everyday someone or the other is coming home to meet and greet me. It feels good. I feel like I have achieved something big for the country.
What was your first reaction when you got to know that you would get an Olympic medal?
When I did the second attempt in clean and jerk (115kg), the medal was confirmed. My target was to lift 117kg to rewrite the Olympic record. But that did not happen. A 117kg would have ensured that both Olympic and World records in clean and jerk were in my name. Still, I was very happy that I could get an Olympic medal. I had fulfilled my dream. I am extremely happy.
From failing in three clean and jerk attempts in Rio to going for the Olympic record in Tokyo was a long journey. What kind of thoughts crossed your mind during that period?
When the qualifying events for the Tokyo Games happened, I recalled that I had failed in the Rio Games and now I am getting a chance to amend it. I felt that since I have got a chance I must do well and make up for the failure and show everyone (that I am capable of winning a medal in the Olympics). I kept thinking about this all the while. I worked really hard for five years. I had to go through a lot of injury issues. The USA trip for training was very beneficial. I recovered from my injuries in quick time.
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You got support from a lot of people, including your coach Vijay Sharma and your mother, during the depressing phase after the Rio debacle. Did you get any professional support and how did it help? Do you still continue to take such help?
Yes, so many people helped me during that time. I also got some help from a psychologist at the NIS Patiala. I did a lot of sessions about how to maintain my performance, how to keep my mind strong and how to stay away from those (negative thoughts). I followed all that was prescribed to me. Now I am working with another psychologist provided by the Olympic Gold Quest.
After Rio, your lower back injury also troubled you. When did you think that you could lift weights again?
After the 2018 Commonwealth Games, I had that back injury. I was aiming to participate in the Asian Games and was training for that. But the pain increased and I could not train. Recovery did not happen properly. So I was completely hopeless. At that time also Vijay Sir gave me a lot of support. My family also supported me. Because of their backing I was determined not to give up and do my rehab in a better way. I did not lift weights and had to do rehab for four months and had bed rest. I could not touch the barbell during that period. I even thought I may not be able to lifts weights and cannot come back again. I was very sad and cried a lot. But those four months of rehab helped.
When did you feel that an Olympic medal was possible?
When I returned to the competition, in the qualifying event in the EGAT Cup in Thailand in 2019, after my injury and I took the gold medal, I knew that I would qualify for the Olympics. From that time, we started preparing.
How did the USA trip help you in 2020?
I went there in October before the Asian championships. I had an injury. The recovery was quicker. I got a medal with a world record in the Asian championships. Again I trained in the USA (before the Olympics) and it helped a lot in the recovery.
Mirabai Chanu’s journey to Olympic silver: From Rio to Tokyo, a spectacular turnaround
How is your mindset when you go through your lifting sequence?
It’s very important. A lifter goes through a lot of thoughts and feels a sense of responsibility. Like, I am performing not just for me, but for my state and my country. Every time there is a lot of tension and pressure. During competition, some lifters go through a lot of emotions. I keep all thoughts aside and tell myself that I have done this many times during my training, and I will give my best at the competition. So, I just focus on the weight I am about to lift.
Why was the first snatch attempt in the Olympics so important for you?
It is always very important to do the first lift without any problems. If you are aiming at a medal, crossing the first hurdle is important in any competition. It sets the tempo. It feels like I have done one attempt and I can increase the weight from here on. If you fail in the first one, then you tend to go through a bit of tension.
Why do you trust your coach Vijay Sharma so much? Is it true that there have never been any differences between both of you?
I have worked with so many coaches but have not seen a coach like Vijay Sir. He gives a lot of support. In some cases you see a gap between a coach and his athletes. But here we are like family members. He advises like my father.
With him, I never behave like an athlete but always like a family member. I have been away from my family for so long, but Sir has not let me feel the absence of my family. He has given me a lot of support. That’s why I trust him so much.
Your mother has been backing you all through your career. Tell us something about her.
I am a very lucky girl that my whole family loves sports. They used to love sports even before I took up weightlifting. My mother used to play football at the local level. She always dreamt that whatever she could not do, I must achieve that. Since the time I started weightlifting, my mother has backed me a lot. She supported me mentally and provided me with all the things I needed.
You have made a lot of sacrifices, including quitting a lot of foods, to stay fit. How are you spoiling yourself and what are you eating now?
As an athlete it’s not possible to eat everything. So, I am having more or less the same food. Yes, I am enjoying a lot of home-cooked Manipuri food items. Once I am back in the camp in Patiala, I don’t know when I can have these foods again. I am having my favourite food, eromba, everyday. That is a famous food in our region.
What all, which you could not do in all these years, did you do in the last few days?
I met my friends and a lot of people whom I could not meet all these years. All family members have gathered and we are enjoying ourselves. I have two childhood friends (Bijaylaxmi and Langlin) from my high school days. They are from a different village. They had come to see me one day. It was good to see them. We cried a lot after meeting each other after so many years.
Are you able to do your training and exercises amid all the celebrations?
No. I have to go back to Patiala to resume my training. I cannot afford to sit idle for a long time.
What are your next targets?
First of all, the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games are there in 2022. I will try to do my best there. I am also aiming to convert this silver into gold in the 2024 Olympic Games.
For how long can you continue to do weightlifting at the top level?
Depends on time. If I stay fit, then I will not quit this sport and will continue to bring laurels for the country.
Are you planning to increase your weight category?
No, not right now. I will see how it works out in future. But now I will stick to 49kg. Generally my body weight stays one-and-a-half kg up. So, it’s ideal for 49kg.
How is your success going to promote the sport in the country, including in Manipur and North East?
I feel that my performance in Tokyo can inspire others and more and more girls can take up weightlifting. I was very happy seeing the video of a small girl trying to copy me (on Twitter). It was so cute.
You are a role model. You know the Indian Weightlifting Federation is trying to weed out the doping menace. What is your message to the young weightlifters?
The shortcut is not going to help. One has to work really hard to get success. It takes a lot of time to succeed in any sport. You don’t get success overnight. I would advise the young athletes to work hard and be ready to face all sorts of difficulties to move ahead and bring a good name to weightlifting and India.