Superlatives that don’t border on hyperbole. A hare that jaunts ahead of a tortoise, uncaring of some consolatory proverb. An 4’11” Indian woman who saunters on stage, and gets tattooed 6 foot gym-boys with ripped biceps and gelled spiked hair in the crowd, to utter “whoa, I couldn’t lift 88 like her, maan.” Mirabai Chanu gave Birmingham’s diaspora assembled at the National Exhibition Centre, an experience they’ll not forget too soon. Or ever.
Adjectives flowed. Fantastic. Different level. In a league of her own. Every announcement of a lift of the Snatch or Clean & Jerk, raised hysterical anticipation, and not just amongst the ethnic Indian supporters. The MC in the arena couldn’t stop repeating that the assembled crowd, some connoisseurs, others casual drifters into ‘the lifting’ were in the presence of an outstanding sports hero, a World Champion, an Olympic medallist and a world record holder.
The crowd hunched forward to watch closer than what their seats allowed, steadied their breaths as she announced outrageous weight targets, far ahead of the CWG pack, and then meticulously hunted down her own tall proclamations. A gold was a foregone conclusion. Mirabai did something grander – she made weightlifting, a test of strength in sinews, into a spectator sport. The arena roared with her, howled when she scythed down one weight after another, and teased them with a whiff of the possibility of a world record.
Eventually Mirabai (201 = 88 + 113) finished a staggering 29 kg ahead of Mauritian Ranaivosoa (172 = 76+96), but the crowd was here to watch a rare Indian blow the field. Sirish is a young Indian origin IT professional from South Africa, working in London, who walked in to figure out what the phenom was all about. “Of Course she’s a huge inspiration for females. But she’s a bigger inspiration for men. I mean do you know any Indian man who can wipe out a field like this? We have Virat Kohli in cricket, but even he has Steve Smith and Joe Root on his tail. It’s so different to watch an Indian dominate like this.”
The CWG was expected to be a stomping ground for the Indian, with the Chinese Olympic champ Hou Zhihui not around. Still, watching it unfold in front of them left fans rubbing their eyes and waving their hands and playing air drums after every lift, as mass goosebumps struck.
“She just went from 84 kg to 88 in her next (Snatch) lift, while others were crawling up 1 kg at a time. It’s stunning to watch, and then a double take that it’s an Indian,” said Akshay Magdum, who came in from Exeter to watch the Indian lord over the barbell. “Growing up in undergrad, I used to lift weights and you tend to know how difficult it is to stay consistent, build shape in every lift. Imagine she just walked up and went for a 6 kg raise in a matter of minutes. You need sufficient rest and to settle heart beats,” he added, still stupefied.
Recreational work out lifters pumping iron all their life, realising just how laughingly amateur their gym gold medals were. It was a stadium full of wide eyed men, bowing before the goddess of iron.
Indian diaspora drops in at cricket and hockey often but not since MC Marykom and Vijender Singh in boxing, have Indian athletes attracted such hysteria. Not unlike a boxer, Mira would come accompanied by coaches, with the white towel wrapped around her shoulders like a pugilist’s robe. She would walk towards the end of the elevated platform after powdering her palms, then step on to the raised level with a skid of one red shoe. Then two limb loosening squats later, palms balled around the bar, she would raise the bar in one smooth motion. Then with nothing jerky in the torso, stand straight, easing hundreds of nerves, breathing nervously with her. And complete the lift without anything aggravating on the nerves.
A wholesome smile would finish the uplifting experience, and light up the arena.
“Aaraam se, tension nai leti” she would explain later. Geared towards the World Championships in December, Mirabai would say she’s happy with technique on her Snatch, but would continue to improve. The thought of a pizza would bring another smile as she would talk of having eaten very little to make weight in the last few days.
The crowd couldn’t get enough of her. “She’s outstanding, none of us had seen her in real life. But it was exciting to know every time she walked out she would crack up some monster lift,”said Birmingham University student Kanishk Kathuria. “Kudos to Mirabai for making weightlifting a sport not associated with India, to this level,” said Bharat Sakhuja.
Birmingham resident Suvir brought his family including daughter Vedika to watch Mirabai. “We are so incredibly proud of her. It was good to show my daughter how strong Indian women can be,” he would say. “This wasn’t a movie. She’s a superwoman,” 7-year-old Vedika would say. “We were shivering and I think I made one eye contact with her. Oh my god, I had goosebumps,” said 20-year-old student Nymphie, originally from Patiala, Punjab studying in the Midlands.
Ultimately, it was about an Indian being so far ahead of the field – not a world standard field, but still 29 kgs. And giving Indians in the stands that rare real feeling of being on top of the world. “I felt the twitch in my shoulder, I literally lived the lift with her. I’ll never forget this experience. Cricket and hockey, yes they are nice. But this was so bad-ass!” Nymphie would add.