Updated: July 22, 2016 3:12:15 pm
She is a rarity in Indian sport– a world-class athlete who knows she can win an Olympic medal. Hailed by her mentor Kunjurani Devi as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ weightlifter, Chanu knows she has a chance at glory, but is also aware that even a minor error can prove costly. Jonathan Selvaraj on the lifter who can be India’s surprise medallist if she holds her nerves
It was late Friday night and as Mirabai Chanu will recall later, she was unable to sleep. It’s not as if she wasn’t tired. She had spent six hours of the day in the weightlifting hall of the National Institute of Sport, Patiala, front squatting nearly three times her bodyweight. As she lay on her bed in her hostel room, she glanced at her mobile phone. Nearly 12 am. She needed to rest. “100, 99,98, 97” she began counting off in her mind. Taught to her by a psychologist, it’s a drill she had repeated many times over the past couple of years. The receding numbers trick worked and Mirabai eventually drifted off to sleep below a poster of China’s legendary 48kg competitor Yang Lian powering a bar weighed down with red, green and yellow plates over her head.
The next day, June 20 to be precise, Mirabai has another legend, Indian this time, for company as she warms up ahead of her competition. It’s the selection trials to determine India’s participants at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sleep deprived when she made weight early in the morning she is wide awake now, and listening intently to what Kunjurani Devi has to say.
Kunjurani Devi had finished fourth in the 48kg category at the 2004 Olympics, still the best result by an Indian weightlifter apart from Karnam Malleswari’s bronze from Sydney. Now as a coach with the Indian team at NIS Patiala, she hovers like a hen around the warmup area. There she gives last-minute advice to Mirabai and Sanjita Chanu, Commonwealth Games gold medalist, both vying for a ticket to Rio. Like Kunjurani, Mirabai competes in the 48kg category.
Mirabai is a small woman – 149 cm she says. She tips the scales at 47.68kg. Her shoulder-length hair is restrained in a bun, held down in place by a bunch of coloured hair pins with flower, bird and smiling animal face motifs — mementos from her visits to countries for various competitions. The colourful trinkets are the only concession to gaiety in the otherwise spartan grey hall. Hazy single page photostats from a Bulgarian manual on weightlifting line the walls. The smell of iodex hangs thickly. The only sounds are the quick shouts of advice – ‘first pull slow, second pull fast’ – from the coaches, the primal grunt of the women as they defy gravity to launch more than twice their body weight above their head and the final wham-wham-wham of the iron discs dropping down and bouncing up off the creaking wooden platforms.
It’s a hard world. It’s also one where Mirabai excels. By all accounts she has done enough and more to be an obvious pick for the Olympics. Over the last couple of years, the 22-year-old, who tipped the scales Friday morning at 47.68kg, has emerged as India’s premier weightlifter. She finished ninth at last year’s worlds in Houston.
At the Asian Championships in Baku last month she had finished seventh – and was pivotal in winning an Olympic quota for the country. On the way to her total lift of 190kg – which incidentally was just 2 kg away from the silver mark– Mirabai had broken Kunjurani’s 12-year-old record in the snatch with a lift of 85kg and matched her total lift record.
By late morning on Friday, in the competition hall that is separated by a thin wall from the warm up zone, Mirabai would do even better. She would match another record of Kunjurani – with a clean and jerk lift of 107 kg and set a new total record of 192 kg. The total is the fourth best of the year in the world. It is a world-class lift by a lifter who is that rare creature in Indian sport – a genuinely world-class athlete.
There was a time when Mirabai wasn’t world-class though. There was a time when she was just another school-girl in Imphal. Sport was always around her. She loved playing football with her two brothers while the TV was mostly her sport freak father’s domain. The tube was how she got her first look at weightlifting too. “I first saw weightlifting on TV. I think it was Kunjurani Devi’s performance at the 2004 Olympics. When I slept that night I dreamt that I was on the podium with a medal. I knew right from then that I wanted to be a weightlifter,” she says.
And if she wanted to be a weightlifter, it had to be Kunjurani Devi. “At that time Kunjurani maam was a big star in Manipur. She was on TV a lot and I even read about her in school books. It wasn’t as if I was very strong so I became a weightlifter. I wasn’t very big but it was what I wanted to do,” she says.
Soon after her first dreams of the Olympics, Mirabai would begin training at the Manipur State weightlifting center in Imphal under the eye of Anita Chanu, another of the state’s famous lifters.
Mirabai though would hardly be lifting the weight shaft she had seen Kunjurani hoist in Athens. “Like everyone else, I started by lifting a bamboo cane. It wasn’t what I had in mind but I stuck to it. It took me six months before I was even allowed to lift just the iron bar. I always wondered when I would lift the 10kg plates for the first time. I thought it would never happen,” she laughs.
Eventually it did happen. By the time she was 11, Mirabai was already winning gold at the sub junior (U-15) level. Gold at the junior nationals in 2011 won her a place at the national camp in Bangalore, where she finally came face to face with her idol, now a coach.
“I was very scared of her at first. I imagined she would be very strict and tough. That she was, but only while training. Out of the hall, she is like the family I left behind in Imphal. I can talk to her like she is my mother. If something is bothering me, I’ll go to her,” says Mirabai who followed her mentor to the national camp in Patiala in 2013.
In the Punjab city, so far away from home, both tried their best to find familiarity. “Sometimes, when she gets bored of eating in the canteen, I will cook for her. I’ll usually make Manipuri dishes with vegetables and fish paste. She likes that a lot,” says Mirabai.
Kunjurani for her part knows the potential of the girl. “Mirabai is one of those lifters that you get once in a generation,” she says simply. “She was always willing to work hard and wasn’t someone who would look to get away when she thought no one was looking.”
The veteran believes her ward has several things going for her. “She is quite young and she stays around her competition weight even during the off season. That means she can lift heavy during training and she will still be able to recover and not get injured,” she says.
Kunjurani isn’t sad to see her records fall one by one to Mirabai. “I didn’t have a lot of support when I was starting my career simply because women’s weightlifting was a very new field. I don’t want to see her go through the same troubles as I did. I would like to see her achieve what I couldn’t. And I think it is very possible as well,” she says.
An Olympic medal is the dream. Mirabai is already close to achieving as much as her body is capable of. At the Commonwealth Games in 2014 where she won silver, she lifted 170 kg. In the two years since, she has increased that total by 22 kg. Chief coach of the national team, Vijay Sharma knows, that still might not be enough.
Like at a regular competition, Mirabai gets three attempts on each of the two Olympic lifts – snatch and clean and jerk– at her selection trials. She falters only once – in her first attempt at a clean and jerk of 103kg. It forces her to scale back the weight she attempts on her second attempt. Watching from one of the doors that separate the two halls, Sharma slaps his thigh in disappointment. It means that in the trials, Mirabai will only equal Kunjurani’s record in the clean and jerk. At the Olympics it could mean, she remains in fourth place.
“What will be key for Mirabai will be how she reacts on the stage. At the World Championships last year she missed two attempts and lifted 183kg. At the Asian Championships she missed two lifts– one in the snatch and another in the clean and jerk. At the trials, she missed one lift in the clean and jerk. She is improving but she can’t afford to fail a lift at the Olympics. At Rio she has to clear every one of her lifts,” he says.
Considering that heavier weights get lifted in practice than during competition, Mirabai insists that the deciding variable between winning and losing is the mental focus of the athlete.
The explosion of energy spectators see on the weightlifting platform masks the weightlifters’ search for calmness and control. “Weightlifting is not just about being strong. The mind is most important for a lifter. You have to go as blank as you can. You create a list of things that you have to do. You think of what your coach has told you. When you are over the bar, you go through your technique once again, where your feet have to be and how your body has to move through the lift. You just can’t think about other things. It’s not easy. Because always your mind wants to wander. ” she says.
When you are talking about fighting nearly three times your bodyweight though, self doubt is never far away.
“Sometimes the mind wavers. You get nervous and worried. But you have to center yourself. You know the work you have put into it. You tell yourself it is possible. You can’t think if I miss this lift, I can make it up in the next attempt. The entire lift gets over in less than a second. If we start thinking during the lift about what if I miss this, there isn’t any time. So you have to get it over with,” she says.
For all it’s importance, the mind is often the most vulnerable variable in Mirabai’s body. Straightjacketed into complete focus during training and competition, it often refuses to be tamed when she needs to rest and recover.
“We have a major problem with sleep. We are supposed to sleep two hours in the day and eight hours in the night. But in the night it’s nearly impossible especially on days when we have lifted really heavy weights.We are really tired during the day but we just don’t get sleep,” she says.
Sports psychologists say the phenomenon is not uncommon especially for strength athletes. Ahead of competition and especially on days when they have a heavy workload, the body is flooded with adrenaline – the flight/fight hormone. Mirabai says she will often sleep for six hours and even less as she obsesses over her practice sessions. “I’ll be thinking perhaps I could have done something different in training or why I missed a lift. Or what my target is for the next session. I know it isn’t helpful but its difficult to break out of it.”
Mirabai has spoken to Kunjurani about the predicament and for once even the senior has no good answer, despite having had the same experience of fighting sport-induced insomnia in her competitive days. She has visited psychologists before and followed through their usual tricks – take deep breaths, count backwards from a hundred, read a book. It’s a temporary fix. Mirabai however believes she knows what it will take to fix it. “I need to win a medal at the Olympics. If that happens, I’ll finally be able to sleep at peace.”
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