Age and experience can be peculiar levellers in sport. In the eight minutes that she spent inside the ring with an opponent nearly 10 years her junior, Mary Kom must have, at some point, felt that age was catching up with her.
The twinkle-toed Zhaina Shekerbekova, the 24-year-old from Kazakhstan, made Mary run around the ring and her quick combination punches ruffled the Indian more than once. In comparison to Zhaina’s quick, stinging punches, a few of Mary’s attempts seemed feeble.
But the 31-year-old from Manipur used her wealth of experience to neutralise the youthfulness of her opponent and clinch the gold medal in the women’s flyweight category at the Asian Games. Saving her energy for the end, Mary tired her opponent out in the first two rounds before unleashing a flurry of punches in the final two. Mary waited for Zhaina to take the initiative. And each time she attempted to land a punch, Mary would sneak one through. It was a trick that unsettled Zhaina and turned the tide in Mary’s favour. She eventually won the bout 2-0 in a majority verdict on Wednesday to become the country’s first woman boxer to win an Asiad gold.
This isn’t exactly the type of comeback you might have expected. But what was supposed to be her swan song has now turned into a springboard for Rio Olympics in 2016.
The two years since the 2012 Olympics have been rather strange for Mary. It was assumed by many that London would be her last appearance, even though she never formally announced any retirement plans. But the sequence of events was an indication enough. First, she had to undergo a gallbladder surgery. Soon after, she was pregnant with her third child.
Consequently, she was away from the sport since the Olympics concluded in August 2012.
The biopic on her further acted as a distraction, eating into her training schedule. Many people concluded that her hunger for boxing was diminishing. After all, she had won everything and had nothing more to prove.
When she failed to make the cut for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, the murmurs began to grow louder. Eulogies were written again.
But Mary has a penchant of proving the naysayers wrong. Six years ago, after she gave birth to twins, almost everyone had written her off. But she returned, and returned stronger. She won a world championship gold, Asian Games bronze and a historic Olympic bronze to mark one of the most remarkable comebacks in Indian sport.
This, however, was a different scenario. Mary was now older, and her body wouldn’t react the same way as it did in 2008. Her movements were getting slower. “It was a frustrating period. But the biggest difference was that this time, I knew what had to be done to make a successful comeback,” Mary says.
If her husband Onler was her rock, one of her earliest coaches Lenin Meitei became the guiding force. The Manipuri is one of Mary’s earliest coaches and sparring partner. He knows Mary unlike no one else and four months before the Commonwealth Games, they got to work. “The biggest challenge was to get her back into shape. It was very difficult, especially after she delivered her third baby, but her determination is unquestionable. Even when the movie schedule would interrupt her training, she would make up for it by training extra,” Meitei says.
“I don’t know whether this comeback was possible without Lenin. He made it possible,” Mary adds.
Not surprisingly, Mary feels this medal ranks “up there with the best” of the dozen medals she has won in her career, which has lasted over a decade. Coming into the Incheon Games, it was a given that Mary would finish on the podium. The question really was whether she could win the gold.
In fact, there was little doubt that she would win the yellow metal after she beat Haijuan Si in the quarterfinal. The young Chinese boxer had defeated Mary’s nemesis Ren Can Can to board the flight to Incheon and had developed quite a reputation back home. The manner in which the Indian defeated her, it was pretty evident that Mary meant business. “That bout gave me a lot of confidence. I really felt that I could win gold after that,” she says.
On Wednesday, she was troubled by the young Kazakh. For a moment, even Mary thought she would lose. But she dug deep into the reserves of her experience and eked out a famous win.
Buoyed, she now has Rio in sights. It’s not very far, she says. “Just two more years. I can manage that much. You people said this was the twilight of my career. But I say this is my second coming. And it won’t end here.”