Updated: July 25, 2021 8:24:28 am
At first, Mirabai Chanu thought it was a dream. “I forgot where I was standing,” she laughs.
The piercing voice of the emcee jolted her back to reality. “I thought, ‘oh, that’s an Olympic podium!’” The 10 seconds that followed – when she flashed a big, wide smile, waved to an empty auditorium and stepped on the podium – are a blur for Chanu. “The next thing I saw was a silver medal hanging around my neck.”
In her uncontrollable excitement, Chanu makes it sound like it was all accidental and easy. It was anything but that. It is not often in Indian sport that an athlete delivers exactly what is expected of her. Rarer even, that such performance is delivered on the big stage. And never before has it led to a medal on the first day of an Olympics.
But at the spaceship-like Tokyo International Forum, the 26-year-old from Imphal shattered all those stereotypes with an authoritative, out-of-the-world performance to open India’s account at the Tokyo Olympics.
After suffering a crushing blow at the Rio Olympics, then rising to become the world champion in 2017 before being laid low first by a career-threatening injury, and after that the pandemic to eventually win a silver medal at the Olympics, Chanu’s journey from the lowest of lows to the second-highest of highs has been enthralling.
“I will celebrate by eating a pizza,” she says. “I can’t go out and party, so this is the least I can do.”
Before the podium and the pizza, though, there was insufferable pain. In one form or another, pain has been the ever-smiling lifter’s constant companion throughout this Olympic journey.
Even the night before her event was spent in agony. “We weren’t sure how well she would perform but Mira has once again shown nothing can stop her,” coach Vijay Sharma says. “She was single-minded in her determination to erase the memories of the Rio Olympics.”
In Rio five years ago, Chanu was a favourite but she crashed out after being unable to log even one legitimate lift in the clean-and-jerk section of her event. Every day for the last five years, Chanu has been living with the feeling of that ‘failure’. It became so overwhelming that she spent nights wondering if this is where she belonged. In her mind, she had decided to quit, but her mother Tombi talked her out of the idea during her short visit home.
That trip would turn out to be one of the only two times Chanu has been home since 2016. “That’s the first thing I am going to do now. Go home, spend time with family. I don’t remember what it feels like,” she says.
This was no exaggeration. After the unceremonious return to the National Institute of Sports in Patiala post-Rio Olympics, Chanu and her coach Vijay Sharma immersed themselves into project Tokyo.
In every competition since then, Chanu has only bettered herself. In 2017, she became only the second Indian after Karnam Malleswari to win the gold medal at the World Championship, lifting a total of 194 kg. The following year, at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, she won the gold by tallying 2 kg more.
By then, even though Chanu wasn’t anywhere close to matching the strength of the Chinese lifters, she created daylight between her and the rest by lifting iron twice her bodyweight. A clear hierarchy was established: there was China, and then Chanu, followed by everyone else.
Preparing for Tokyo posed a different challenge. The hardest part, it turned out, was arriving in Tokyo without infection or a strained muscle or a fatigued mind. Chanu was careful, she didn’t want a Rio repeat.
On Saturday, when her name was called, she showed nothing but superior strength, succeeding in four of her six lifts. By the time she lifted 110 kg on her first attempt in the clean and jerk, the identity of India’s first medallist of these Games was abundantly clear.
She would miss her last attempt, where she tried to lift 117 kg, but it did not matter. Her combined total of 202 kg was 8 kg less than the eventual gold medallist, Hou Zhihui of China, and 8 kg better than that of the bronze medallist, Aisah Windy Cantika of Indonesia.
Moments after the result was made formal, Chanu was on a video call with her teammates from Patiala. They sang and danced until she had to be dragged out for the medal ceremony. And the dancing resumed the moment it got over. In the mixed zone, an area next to the field of play where athletes and media interact, Chanu broke into an impromptu jig.
Then, she held her medal tight, removed the mask, and kissed it. The pain, the Rio nightmare were forgotten. Her dream had just got real. Now, she had on her mind the pizza that had been staring at her from the Games Village cafeteria counter.
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