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Mirabai Chanu: ‘Khushi ke maare neend nahin aati, waited so many years for this, one day I’ll also have a record lift’

Never before Tokyo has India enjoyed such a confident start to the Olympics, with Mirabai Chanu winning silver in 49-kg weightlifting, with a total lift of 202 kg, on Day 1.

Mirabai Chanu, Olympics silver medallist; Coach Vijay Sharma. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Mirabai Chanu talks about putting the heartbreak of Rio behind, missing her mother, and retaining composure in the face of pressure; coach Vijay Kumar explains the determination and discipline which lie at the heart of his 26-year-old ward’s success. The session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Shivani Naik

Shivani Naik: Which was more stressful — the snatch of 87 kg or the clean & jerk of 115 kg?

Mirabai: The last snatch was the most tense because technique-wise, I fell a little short. I gave my best and tried, but I fell a bit short.

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Shivani Naik: Coach Sharma, what was going through your mind at the time?

Vijay Sharma: Definitely during each lift, the blood pressure shoots up, but after the first lift you can relax a little. This time, I was feeling a lot more pressure thinking about Rio. Even though we had some great performances after that, psychologically, there is always the feeling that this is the Olympics, hope nothing goes wrong. That was the idea behind the 84, 87 kg starts, to take it safe and secure a medal. When the snatch finished, we relaxed a little thinking, ‘Yes, we are in the competition now. Kar lenge (We’ll do it)’.

Nihal Koshie: Mira, after the Rio Olympics, did you discuss your future with your mother? How big an influence is she?

Mirabai: She has been my pillar. She likes sports, and the family has dreamt of me becoming a sportswoman one day. In earlier days, there were problems with getting a good diet. My mother tried, she went all out. She told me, ‘Don’t look back, whatever comes, we are there to support you’. She once said I can’t feed you properly but I will try my best to take you to the top. If I had a bad day, or didn’t have a good day, she would come to know from my voice. She knows when I’m sad or not feeling well. I would lie many times but she would come to know. She used to motivate me regularly, that ‘If today is your bad day, keep working hard, tomorrow will be your good day’.

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Nihal Koshie: How crucial was her support after Rio?
Mirabai: Just after my competition got over in Rio, I called my mother and couldn’t control my weeping. I told her I could not win a medal despite training so much. I knew somewhere she was also disheartened. She told me, ‘When you come back, we will talk about it’. I asked her what more I needed to do. I even thought maybe I should give up weightlifting, Later, I asked her if I should do so. She said winning and losing are part of sports, that whatever happened has happened, it’s past now, that I should try to plan my future, think of how much more hard work I can do. Later, I realised that I can do a lot, I can plan something. ‘Whatever happened has happened’… it was great motivation from my mother.

Mirabai Chanu Saikhom of India in action. (Reuters Photo: Edgard Garrido)

Shivani Naik: What did your coach tell you post Rio?

Mirabai: After Rio, I was clueless. I had done all the hard work but failed. I didn’t know what to change. I used to ask him what more I needed to do. Where was I going wrong? Coach made me understand, he changed my style of training, he changed my technique. After I changed my technique, my coach said, I can go ahead in my game and in the next Olympics I will surely win a medal. He motivated me a lot.

Devendra Pandey: Coach Sharma, one year after the Rio Games, Mirabai became the world champion. What changed in that one year?

Vijay Sharma: The Rio 2016 setback was a very bad time for us. But two months later, we were back in proper training. Mira took a couple of months to mentally and physically regain her form. Her mother’s role in that period was instrumental. I too was there for her at that time. We discussed training — what to do, what not to do, how to go about it, what all was there to achieve. But all of it was possible because of how determined Mira is — if she wants to achieve something, she will absolutely achieve it.

Devendra Pandey: What was the thinking behind the entry list total weight of 210 kg (at the Olympics)?

Vijay Sharma: There are some psychological aspects to the game that a coach must consider. Mira had a problem physically before the event and the declaration of weight was tactical.

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Sriram Veera: Mira developed menstrual cramps the day before the event. How did you guys handle it?

Vijay Sharma: It’s a coach’s duty to keep tab of everything, from small to big. That is why bonding is so important. We need to know what’s happening in her body and we can speak about these things only when the relationship is completely open and we trust each other.

With Mira, let’s put it this way: if not A to Z, I know A to W at least of her! We share a lot. This time in the US, we met a gynaecologist as we have had problems with this in the past. We asked that gynaecologist what to do if it crops up. We also did Zoom chat with a doctor Mira had been in touch with from before. So we had our bases covered as this can happen to a woman any time.

We also carried precautionary medicines to Tokyo.

The thing is, you can’t be sure 100% with these things. And that’s what happened. We missed the 117-kg lift — she had done 119 kg just a few days ago. So if that (menstrual cramps) hadn’t set in, she might perhaps have done even better. But this is part of the game, you have to be ready for anything. But yes, it does affect performance.

Shivani Naik: How much would you say Mirabai has evolved since she started to train with you, and how much of a learning experience has this been for you as well?

Vijay Sharma: Mirabai came into the national camp after she had won a medal in the junior championships. At that time, I was in charge of the men’s team but training used to happen together. She has been with me since the 2014 Commonwealth Games. When she won a silver then, she had lifted clean & jerk weight of 98 kg. Slowly from there, we worked hard, and today she can lift 119 kg in the same category. It has been a long and tough journey but Mirabai has put in honest work and discipline, the result of which is her being here, at this position.

Devendra Pandey: Coach Sharma, it’s all about the medal now, but how tough were the last few years with this single-minded pursuit?

Vijay Sharma: The bond between a coach and the athlete is significant. Luckily, my bond with Mira gradually became as strong as a father-daughter’s. That is why we bounced back after every injury, every problem, and gave this result.

This was a pursuit of five years. 2019 and 2020 were absolutely crucial for us. At the Kolkata nationals (in February 2020, where Mirabai won gold), we performed brilliantly and there was regular improvement. And suddenly, we got to know that the Olympics had been postponed. We were distraught. But again, it’s the resolve. In our hearts we knew that we have to do this, it will be delayed now, but we will perform. We didn’t go back home during the lockdown. The thought process then was whatever happens, happens for the best. We didn’t spare any opportunity. In rooms, corridors, whenever we got any opportunity, we trained.

Sandeep Dwivedi: Mira, the pandemic time must have been a setback for you guys. How much did it impact your training and how much of a difference does no crowds make?

Mirabai: Everyone likes crowds, they bring a different energy.

Sandeep Dwivedi: What is the thinking like after each lift? When does the thought of a medal kick in?

Mirabai: I was not thinking about a medal, every player has a different way of thinking. We have six lifts, first three and later three. My first goal was to clear the first three lifts. If I think about the medal after one lift, things will be over for me. I was thinking about giving my best performance.

Sandeep Dwivedi: Do you ever get angry in real life, because there is hardly any tension on your face?

Mirabai: Sometimes I do get angry (laughs). It happens sometimes.

Sandeep Dwivedi: Do you meditate or read to bring that calmness?

Mirabai: I have been like this since childhood. The mind needs to be relaxed as a relaxed mind always helps.

Sriram Veera: What was going through your mind between lifts?

Mirabai: You do feel the pressure as everyone is watching you, there is pressure to do well. I recall the time I spent during training, I keep calm, I tell myself that the way I pull through during my training, I will do the same here. The situation then feels normal.

Shivani Naik: Coach Sharma, how is Mirabai different from the other lifters you have trained?

Vijay Sharma: Talented bachche bahut hain (There are many talented children). But the two things that separate Mira from these other weightlifters are her discipline and her self-determination. Aaj bhi cycle pe training karne aati hai hostel se (Even today she comes for training on a cycle from the hostel). In the last five years, she hasn’t been home for even 10 days, she has missed her own sister’s wedding and she has done nothing but eat, sleep and train. These things are very tough for other talented weightlifters.

Nihal Koshie: Mira has had many issues in the past. There was the mystery back issue and problems with her shoulder. In a power sport like weightlifting, how challenging is it to make a comeback after injury?

Vijay Sharma: In these eight years with Mira, there must have been at least three moments where we wondered, ‘Will we be able to do it or not?’. It happened in Rio, though it wasn’t an injury but a technical issue. The back problem after the 2018 Commonwealth Games was much more difficult. Even I couldn’t figure out the reason. And there wasn’t a physical therapist or doctor in India that we didn’t go to. That was another phase where we thought, ‘Will we be able to do it again or not?’. People said, ‘That’s it, they’re done’. But we never lost hope. We kept trying and I got in touch with Dr Aaron (Horschig, American physiotherapist) through Instagram. After talking with him I learnt that it was a biomechanical issue, not an injury. There was some weakness in muscles. We began working on that. That benefited us a lot in training. After the lockdown, I requested TOPS (the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme) that going to Aaron would help us a lot. TOPS cleared us and I can’t explain how much going there helped us. I learnt a lot there.

Injuries will happen when you are lifting this much. The responsibility of a coach is to track the recovery of an athlete; if a part of the body is fatigued or injured, how to properly rest and recover. The role of the coach becomes paramount in phases like these. I tried very hard to make sure that there is neither an injury nor a dip in performance. God helped us.

Shivani Naik: Mira, what did you miss about home when you were in the US?

Mirabai: I used to think about home every day. There was not a day when I didn’t miss my mother and my family. I have not been home for the past few years now. At the same time I would tell myself that I was in the US so that I could win a medal for my country. I had to keep my emotions aside and focus on my training.

Shivani Naik: How does a coach balance between training and injury management in weightlifting?

Vijay Sharma: When you are regularly watching a student, even a small difference during their lifts should tell you that there is fatigue, the body isn’t working properly today. Then, depending on the communication with the athlete, you will immediately know if there is a problem and you have to change the training.

Sriram Veera: The stereotype is that weightlifting is an aggressive sport and lifters work themselves into almost a frenzy before lifts. Mira is calm, composed…

Vijay Sharma: It’s up to the DNA of every wrestler. You can be quiet and calm and perform really well. Some need to get really hyper, they shout loudly, to perform. It differs from person to person. It depends on your nature and we tailor the training according to it.

Shivani Naik: Mira, how do you typically react when you hear, say, that Chinese lifter Zhizhi Hou (the eventual champion), has lifted a record 96 kg? Does it add to the pressure?

Mirabai: There was no pressure. She had a good snatch and I will just try to match it someday. I feel one day I will also lift 96 kg so I need to continue my hard work and keep training.

Sriram Veera: Coach Sharma, in these tense and emotional times of preparation, have there been any lighter incidents that stick in the mind?

Vijay Sharma: Our federation’s secretary general Sahadev Yadav ji, who was in daily touch with us and took care of all the details, had met a sports psychologist who said, ‘Keep Mira laughing, don’t allow her to get stressed, just light-hearted stuff daily’. Twice daily, for 5-10 minutes, we would keep her laughing. Just to not let her get too serious.

Shivani Naik: Mira, how good was returning home after long?

Mirabai: I’m very happy, the way I was welcomed. Everyone here is happy, be it my family, my friends. I got plenty of gifts. I am just happy.

Nihal Koshie: Mira, after winning at Tokyo, whom did you call first?

Mirabai: I did speak to my mother, she told me there were celebrations back home. Lot of well-wishers had come by. We couldn’t speak much, but I saw it on TV later. I wanted to talk more to her, but couldn’t.

Shivani Naik: How did you celebrate the medal back at the Athletes Village?

Mirabai: Due to the pandemic, I couldn’t celebrate after I won because there were too many restrictions. I didn’t enjoy it much either. I spoke to Sir and he said it was a dream which everyone had seen together for the last five years. We worked so hard to get this. Finally, the day had come. We sat in the evening and recalled those past five years.

Sriram Veera: We have read that two years ago, when you couldn’t sleep well, you used to reverse count from 100 to 1. Is the problem solved?

Mirabai: It has been solved. There is no issue now.

Sriram Veera: So after winning a medal now, do you get good sleep?

Mirabai: (Laughs) Khushi ke maare neend nahin aati (Now I can’t sleep out of sheer happiness). We waited so many years for only this day.

Shivani Naik: Do you miss training now? And what will be the challenges ahead of the Paris Olympics?

Mirabai: Yeah, I miss it a lot. I want to go back to training!

Three years is less time. I have to start again. Time is running fast. There will be qualification rounds and later the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games. I have very little time actually.

WHY MIRABAI CHANU, VIJAY SHARMA

Never before Tokyo has India enjoyed such a confident start to the Olympics, with Mirabai Chanu winning silver in 49-kg weightlifting, with a total lift of 202 kg, on Day 1. Thus, helped by her coach of seven years, Vijay Sharma, the Manipuri superstar erased the memories of Rio, where she had struggled to make a single lift

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