Nearly 20 minutes into her warm-up routine, Mirabai Chanu displays otherworldly levels of flexibility not much unlike Neeraj Chopra’s insane medicine ball stretch, which broke the internet last year.
With a resistance band wrapped around her right leg, she lies down on her stomach, bends the right knee, and brings it up and under the chest while the left leg remains stretched straight. Then, instead of remaining static in that position, she pulls her hip back and brings it forward so as to open it up and activate the muscles before she starts the heavy lifting.
Then, with straps around her calves, Mirabai gets into a crab position, raises one arm overhead, followed by a leg and spins like a windmill. It’s excruciating to even watch but she does it the same way she lifts iron that’s twice times her body weight – with a nice, big smile.
“She is one of the most determined lifters I’ve ever worked with,” weightlifting coach and physiotherapist Aaron Horschig, who has worked with Olympic weightlifters, international footballers, baseball players and American footballers, tells The Indian Express.
“Most don’t see the ‘behind-the-scenes’ work Mira puts into keeping her body healthy and training to achieve her success. If you want to be the best in the world, you need to not only train hard and work to lift big weights, but also do the little things ‘behind the scenes’ to keep the body in working shape.”
All this, just for one main purpose – improve her performance in the snatch.
Not at her peak
That the Indian lifter would defend the 49kg gold medal at the Commonwealth Games was a foregone conclusion. The 27-year-old, after all, has ruled her weight class at the CWG like a monarch. She finished with a total of 201kg, 29kg more than silver-medal winner Marie Ranaivosoa.
What makes Chanu’s top-of-the-podium finish on Saturday even more special is that she, according to her coach Vijay Sharma, wasn’t competing at her peak. “The Olympic qualification events as well as the World Championship will be in December. It’s tough to maintain a lifter’s peak for so long. So, our aim will be to just check how far we have progressed,” Sharma had told this paper before Saturday’s event.
The yearning for progress is largely in the snatch segment. Like Chopra, who is chasing the 90m mark in javelin throw, Mirabai, too, is targeting the same number. Apart from one lifter from China, Hou Zhihui (96kg), no one has managed a 90kg-plus snatch lift in the 49kg class. Hence, for Mirabai – among the few in the world who can challenge the Chinese – it’s a primary target.
Chanu holds the world record in the clean and jerk (119kg) section of the event but in snatch, where the barbell has to be lifted above the head in one swift motion, her personal best of 88kg, twice her bodyweight of 49kg – which she equalled on Saturday with her second attempt – is eight kilos less than the world record held by China’s Zhihui.
“Our main aim is to close this gap by the time we reach the Paris Olympics while remaining injury-free,” Sharma had said. “At this level, ek-ek gram improve karna mushkil hai (improvement by even a gram is difficult). So, even if we improve our snatch score by 1kg in every competition we take part in, I’ll be happy because then, we’ll be in a position to fight with the Chinese lifters.”
To add that ‘one kilo’ in every competition, Chanu and her team have been putting in countless hours behind the scenes.
Sharma, who has been coaching Chanu for close to a decade, had been following Horschig’s videos on YouTube – where he uploaded Chanu’s entire warm-up and training video on Friday – when she suffered an injury and got in touch with him. After initial exchanges, they travelled to St Louis, USA, in late 2020 to meet Horschig in person. Since then, they’ve been visiting the facility frequently.
Chanu can ‘snatch over 90kg’
Horschig, who made it his priority to ‘fix’ Chanu before the Tokyo Olympics, says the lifter ‘has the strength to snatch over 90kg but requires some minor adjustments in technique and stability.’
“For example,” he says, “Mira had a small deficit in left shoulder external rotation strength and stability which would lead her to have some very small compensation when snatching. At moderate weights, the problem wasn’t consequential, but at extreme loads, these problems lead to missed lifts. So, enhancing stability and control was one focus.”
When in St Louis, Chanu would visit Horschig three times a week and spend an hour and a half ‘working on enhancing her stability and control with corrective exercise work.’ The rest of the days were spent in the gym.
For instance, small cross balls would be placed next to her shoulder blades to work on the soft tissues, which would help in upward movement of the shoulder blades. The smooth upward rotation is important to get into a good overhead position for a snatch lift, Horschig explains. And Chanu, prior to the Tokyo Olympics, was ‘inefficient’ in this department.
“We are constantly making adjustments in her training warm-up and rehab work to ensure that she is able to minimise the severity of these small issues so they don’t become big problems with side-track training,” he says.
Horschig, who has competed at the national level in the US, says Chanu’s willingness to learn and endless motivation set her apart from most lifters.
“If you ask her to do a certain exercise for “x” amount of reps at “x” tempo, she will execute it with the same intensity she does a competition lift. You will hear her count out every second of the tempo “one, two, three” and never skip a repetition,” he says. “Many stronger lifters may see these as basic or too simple or reject the idea that they fit into the training aspect of a world-level weightlifter. (But) Mirabai knows and has seen the difference when she performs these alongside her heavy training.”
It’s these mundane details, after all, that will decide whether she can upgrade her Olympic silver medal in Paris two years from now. Chanu knows.