The delight at their daughter Thangjam Tababi Devi (16) winning a silver medal in judo at the ongoing Youth Olympics Games in Argentina was accompanied by a sense of worry for parents Thangjam Thoiba Singh, a daily wage labourer, and Thangjam Ongbi Kamala Devi, a fish vendor.
It had been a slow start to the week for the couple. Their collective earning for Monday was Rs 240, of which about Rs 20 was spent on commuting to Imphal, 24 km from their village Kokchai Makha Leikai in Manipur’s Mayang. The medal was expected but what the family didn’t factor in was the additional cost of getting a gift for their daughter and a feast for the village.
“Gold ka bola tha. Coaches bata rahe hain ki silver aya hai. Hamare liye toh silver bhi gold ke barabar hai. (They had said gold. The coaches said she won silver. For us, a silver is as good as gold). When she started judo, sometimes we did not have money for dinner. I would keep one or two fishes on the side for her. This meant little or no profit on certain days. Both of us earned Rs 240 today and we will keep part of this money as a gift for her,” an emotional Kamala told The Indian Express from her village.
As for the funds needed for the feast the villagers expect from the family, she was clueless. But that was only until the academy her daughter trains at decided to chip in. Mayang village is now busy preparing to welcome their star judoka. Her father, Thoiba says his wife has kept the best fish aside for their daughter. But the parents are relieved that they don’t need to worry about funding the feast.
“I have been told that every trainee from the academy will bring 1 or 2 kg of rice for the village celebration,” says Thoiba.
But for now, the mother of five is more keen to talk about her oldest daughter, who was introduced to the sport at the Judo Federation of India’s Mayai Lambi Sports Academy in her village. She talks indulgently about how Tababi was hooked to the sport quite early in life and her skipping school to sneak into the academy.
Eventually, the mother would give in. In 2010, Tababi, just eight years old then, would be one of the 50 trainees at the academy. She would train under coaches A Sorjit Meitei, Surachandra Singh and A Rupachandra Singh.
At the academy, Tababi would hear about other great Arjuna awardee judokas from the region, Olympians Anita Devi and Tombi Devi. This is when the young girl would realise that doing well in sports pays and how it could change her family’s life.
Meitei gives an idea about the highly-motivated young trainee who stood out not just for her skills but also for her dedication. “There were more than 50 trainees at the academy but Tababi would always be the first to start training. Whenever Anita and Thombi would visit the academy, she would ask them about the Arjuna Award and listen to them. I am sure after today’s medal, Anita and Thombi would be eager to see her with the medal and listen to her tales,” Meitei said.
The only hurdle that Meitei noticed in the way of Tababi making it big was her family’s financial condition. “When I saw her during one of the trials, she was very weak but had quick movement. Her family didn’t want her to get into sports as they could not afford the diet. Sometimes, Tababi would cry after training sessions as she would not be sure about getting the proper diet, which was important for her development. She was fond of fruits and sometimes, all the coaches would contribute money and get her apples from Imphal,” recalls Meitei.
Tababi got her first national medal, a gold, at the sub-junior nationals in Bihar in 2016. Last year, she won a gold medal at the Asian Cadet Championships in Kyrgyzstan before becoming the junior and cadet champion at this year’s nationals in Jalandhar. She repeated her gold-winning feat at the Asian Cadet Championships in May this year before winning the gold at the Cadet Asian Cup in Kazakhstan which sealed her spot for the youth Olympics.
Eight months ago, Tababi was inducted in the JSW Sports Scholarship programme and now trains at the JSW centre in Vijayanagar. In Argentina, the youngster scored a 10-0 win over last year’s European Cadet champion Ana Viktorija Puljiz of Crotia before losing 0-11 to Pan American champion Maria Giminez from Venezuela. Earlier in the quarter-finals, Tababi had defeated European Cadet silver medallist Erza Muminoviq of Kosovo.
“Tababi’s biggest strength is her feet movement and quick reflexes. She looks to be on the weaker side but is mentally very strong. Giminez has been sponsored by the International Judo Federation and if Tababi can compete more in Europe like her, she can win a medal at the 2024 Olympics,” said former India chief coach Jivan Sharma.