For a little over a year, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu has been battling frequent bouts of depression. Not a day has passed without her becoming wistful about that sombre August day in Rio last year, when her Olympic dream was shattered because of her three failed lifts. The DNF (Did Not Finish) against her name was a hard blow for India’s big Olympic hope. And it took a 194-kg lift to get that weight off her shoulders.
On Wednesday, the 23-year-old weightlifter from Manipur become only the second Indian, after Karnam Malleswari in 1994 and 1995, to win a World Championships medal.
Chanu, who weighs just 48 kg, lifted 109 kg in clean-and-jerk (in two motions), before managing the best effort of 85 kg in snatch (in one smooth motion) at the event in Anaheim, in the United States. The combined total of 194 kg was better than Thailand’s Thunya Sukcharoen.
“The Olympics were a disaster. I couldn’t sleep or eat for several weeks after that. Even today, I get depressed thinking about that day,” said Chanu, speaking to The Indian Express from Anaheim. “Thankfully, the country was sleeping during my worst moment.” On Wednesday, most of India was asleep during her best moment too.
Chanu has long been billed as Indian weightlifting’s next star. Inspired by Kunjarani Devi, she started lifting weights soon after the Athens Olympics. It was just bamboo canes for the first six months, before she moved onto an iron bar. At 11, she was already the under-15 national champion. And at 17, she was the junior champion, which earned her a national team call-up. Chanu was then coached by her idol, Kunjarani. Last year, she broke Kunjarani’s snatch national record, set in 2004, and equalled the total lift record of 190 kg to win the Asian Championship. That performance, just 2 kg shy of the Olympic silver-medal mark, put her in the limelight. “Those performances weren’t satisfying for me. Like Kunjarani Devi, I too wanted to perform in the Olympics,” said Chanu. Her coach, Vijay Sharma, said she began lifting 190-plus totals routinely during training, which made her a contender for the medal at the Rio Olympics. But she froze on the biggest stage of all. She was one of the two who could not finish her event, failing to lift the barbell in all three clean-and-jerk attempts.
“She became so depressed that it became tough for us to control… We had been preparing for almost two years and were really hoping for a medal. So after Rio, she went home for five days, returned to Patiala (national training centre) and never went back again,” said Sharma. “For 14 months, we have been practicing daily for this event.”
China has been the dominant country in the 48-kg category. They have won 11 of the last 12 titles. But, along with nine other countries, China was slapped with a year-long ban after the IWF decided to take action against countries with three or more positive dope tests from the re-examination of the Beijing and Rio samples. With China out, the competition was between India and Thailand. “We knew Mirabai had the physical capacity to lift heavy weights, but I was keen to know if she was mentally strong, since that was her undoing in Rio,” said Sharma. To motivate her, Sharma showed her videos of competitions where she performed well, every night for the last one week.
On Wednesday, Chanu was trailing Sukcharoen by 1 kg after the snatch event. In clean-and-jerk, her first challenge was to ensure there were no faulty lifts. The second was to up the stakes. “At the Commonwealth Championships (in September), I had lifted 189 kg for gold. I knew I had to increase the weight here,” she said. Despite two successful lifts of 103 kg and 107 kg, she was still behind by 1 kg. So, in her final attempt, she decided to lift 109 kg. “If I failed, I would have lost the gold. So it was crucial to get it right,” she said. As she walked to the stage, she said, images from Rio flashed before her eyes. To maintain her weight, Chanu hadn’t eaten since morning. She was starving. “But I closed my eyes and just focused on lifting the barbell,” she said. Her arms trembled, but Chanu didn’t flinch. She completed the lift and, for the first time, allowed herself a smile. She’d done her part. Now, her Thai competitor had to match the lift. “I couldn’t watch it. Moments later, Coach came and hugged me. That’s how I got to know I’d won the gold,” she says. “Now, I will see a different image when I close my eyes. And finally, I can go home.”
Weight off her shoulders
Chanu was always ahead of her peers. At 11 itself, she was already the under-15 national champion. And at 17, she was the junior champion, which earned her a national team call-up.
Beating her idol
Chanu took up weightlifting inspired by Kunjarani Devi. Last year, she broke Kunjarani’s snatch national record, and equalled the record of 190 kg to win the Asian Championship
Chanu was India’s best bet for a medal at the Games but she panicked at the biggest stage. was one of the two who could not finish her event, failing to lift the barbell in all three clean-and-jerk attempts.
194Kg – Total weight Chanu lifted overall — 109 kg in clean-and-jerk, before managing the best effort of 85 kg in snatch.