Mirabai Chanu: Belle of the barbell

Winning a gold at the world championships in 2017, finishing atop the podium at the Commonwealth Games to missing the Asian Games because of a back injury, Mirabai Chanu — India’s brightest star in weightlifting — has seen the highs and lows.

Written by Sandip G | Updated: October 21, 2018 9:48:46 am

After the last beat of the last song had died, and after the last dumbbell had thundered into the splintered wooden floor, Mirbai Chanu told coach Vijay Sharma about her decision to skip the Asian Games. (File Photo/PTI)

In the soothing stillness of that night — it’s the way she remembers the night of August 5—Mirabai Chanu slept peacefully, like a child in her mother’s lap. In the evening, she had a light gym session at the camp in NIS Patiala, a bland dinner of cereals and eggs and a brief chat with her mother over the phone, before she unwittingly slipped into sleep. “I was so tired,” she says.

Her previous morning had begun like her recent mornings at the pre-Asian Games camp — with a pang of dread, like she were stabbed by a hundred needles at the back. The pain would eventually subside, she willed her body to believe so, and she would pretend her back was alright during the intense practice sessions. “Since the World Championship, I had been training with the Asian Games in mind. It’s Olympic standard and a medal would have really set things in motion for the Tokyo Games. Everything was set, but…” she stops, ponderously, her throat parched. The silence clung awkwardly.

The day, though, seared along mechanically—push-ups, crunches, light weight training—for doctors had advised her to not lift heavier weights—lot of chatter with her friends and loud music in the hall. She fleetingly forgot the pain of the body and torment of the mind. Then after the last beat of the last song had died, and after the last dumbbell had thundered into the splintered wooden floor, she told coach Vijay Sharma about her decision to skip the Asian Games.

It wasn’t a tough decision, though she had invested a lot of physical and emotional strain into prepping for the Asian Games, where she was touted to end India’s 20-year-drought in weightlifting.

But finally common sense prevailed — the Asiad was just a fortnight away and she couldn’t be indecisive. “I didn’t want to carry an injury to a big event. I wouldn’t have won a medal, aggravated my injury and deprived someone else of a medal opportunity,” she says, her voice regaining the characteristic firmness. When she came out of the room, she felt unburdened. “For two months, exactly from May 25, when I first felt the pain, I was constantly thinking of the injury, whether it would go away in time for the Asian Games, whether I can compete in the Games, and if so will I be good enough for a medal. It was annoying,” she says.

She was hopeful, like all athletes. But none of the doctors provided her a definite diagnosis or reply. “I saw doctors in Delhi, Mumbai and Patiala, but none of them could figure out what exactly caused the pain. They were very affectionate and caring, but I didn’t get the answers. ”

The X-rays showed nothing — neither a crack nor a stress fracture. All of them advised her to take rest and not lift weights for two weeks. After every check-up, she would ask them, with imploring eyes: “Will I be able to compete?” Blank gazes gazed back at her. She got the message, she’d just turn her head away and bury her face (and the dream) under the pillow. “At least now there was certainty.”

The next morning she woke up to the familiar pain of a hundred needles stabbing her back. But she was through with her inner war.

***

Loneliness. It’s the demon every weightlifter fights, more than the weights and laws of gravity. Just imagine this, a lone athlete on a huge open stage, spotlit between the vast expanse of the bar, walking in to wage her elemental battle with gravity, a thousand inner voices ringing in her head.

“Until that moment you enter the platform, coaches and friends are all there. Then suddenly you’re alone. It’s sometimes depressing. It has made me nervous in the past,” she says.

Nervous like on a stiff evening — or it’s the way she felt about that night at the Riocentro two years ago. “Suddenly, my mind stopped, like I were drugged. I remember trying to focus on what the coach had told me. But nothing came to my mind. It was like sitting for an exam. I knew all the answers but couldn’t write a word,” she says, her words fumbling.

When reality dawned, she saw the three hollow alphabets next to her name—DNF. It tore her apart. “I didn’t cry because I couldn’t cry,” she says. She saw the world crashing right in front of her eyes. The eventual verdict crushed her even more. “The silver went for 192 kg (Wahyuni Agustani), which I had lifted during the trials. The bronze went for 188kg. I would have lifted at least 190,” she reflects.

That night was the loneliest she’d ever felt in her life. Friends, coaches, relatives and parents comforted her, but she couldn’t bury the regret. “I had let India down, myself down, coaches and parents down. I felt like a loser, and for a moment I even thought of quitting,” she admits. She then bursts into peels of laughter, and playfully admonishes herself: “How silly I was!”

She could now afford to laugh, because she had not only strode over the setback but also made a strong comeback, winning gold in the World Championship and Commonwealth Games, the latter by setting a Games record (196kg). The reason for the upswing, she says, is eschewing the fear of failure. “Mein abhi bhi tensionwali hain, lekin utna nahin. I don’t cloud my mind with doubts, though I still don’t like photographers clicking the picture from the sides. In Rio, I had put a lot of pressure on myself and kept on thinking about failure. What if I failed? How would I face my coaches. I would hardly get any sleep, and then you see your room-mates sleeping, you feel lonely.”

mirabai chanu wins gold medal at world championships Mirabai’s comeback after the dissapointment at Rio 2016 started with the gold in World Championship. (PTI Photo)

Now all that blasts in her head is the advice of her coach, which she says repeats in her head like a mantra. “Basically, I’m just focused to give my best shot and not think about the medal or what everyone else would think of me. The fear of failure was out of me, and I’ve become more relaxed in my approach,” she says.

Sleep, though, was a debilitating worry. The in-house psychologist of NIS suggested her to listen to music. It worked, then stopped. “I would wait for the next song”.

He advised her to count numbers backwards. “Once I counted back from 1,000. But still didn’t find sleep.” That’s when a friend of her told, “Akbaar padlo, neend aaonga.” When newspapers couldn’t induce sleep, she started reading history books. “I’ve stumbled on the magic formula.” It’s a book on Manipur history, which she dutifully carries wherever she travels. It’s her trusted weapon to fight loneliness. “Now I have all the more reasons to love history books!” she exclaims.

***

The first time Mirabai saw a photograph of Kunjarani Devi was in the class eight history textbook. It was a grainy, black and white picture of Devi lifting a huge bar over her head. “I was shocked. How could you lift such weight? I asked myself. I by-hearted the brief description and the next day I woke up convinced that I want to be like her,” she recollects.

That was around the time she was keen to take up some sport. She wanted to do archery, and had stopped at an academy, but couldn’t enroll as the coach wasn’t around. Her brothers persuaded her to play football. “There was so much football around me that I disliked it. Even my mother plays it. Also, it made clothes dirty. Boxing was interesting, I’m a big fan of Mary Kom didi,” she says, her eyes twinkling in excitement.

But somehow it was Kunjarani that fixated her. So the next day, she went to former weightlifter Anita Chanu’s academy in Luwangsangbam to check out the admission procedure. “Fortunately, it was just the time they were taking kids for weightlifting. They asked me to lift a few weights, must have been around 50-60 kg and I lifted those with ease. The coaches were pleased and I was asked to join in a week’s time,” she says.

Even she didn’t think she could lift weights so easily. But she knows the reason why it came so naturally to her. “We take water from a small naala in our village. So you have to carry the water on your head and climb uphill. I have been doing this right since I was four or five. I would also help my brothers pick firewood from the nearby forest. Sometimes I had to do it all alone, when they played football,” she recounts.

Her only concern about joining the centre was cycling 22 kilometres from her village, Nongpok Kakching, and back. “You know, it’s hilly terrain and it would take at least an hour.”

The family’s worry, though, was different—how to provide her nutrition. Hers was a large family—she was the youngest of six children, her father had a small government job and her mother ran a stationery shop. “It was quite difficult to provide me eggs, meat and milk on a regular basis. But my mother ensured that whatever little she had saved, she would use it for me. She would buy me goat milk and eggs,” she says.

Her eyes would well up each time her mother brought her eggs and milk. “She was investing all the money she had collected over the years on me. It was the money she had set apart for buying something for her or running the family. She wouldn’t listen even if I told her not to buy all these,” she says.

It took her just two years to put her mother out of misery. After she won her first medal at the nationals, in 2010, she was picked for the national camp and thereafter she didn’t have to fret about her diet. Or turn back and wonder whether she had taken the right path.

Then one evening, at the academy, she had a surprise guest. It was Kunjarani. “I had seen her before and even interacted with her, but it was the first time I spent time with her. I told her about getting inspired by reading about her in the history textbook. At the end of our conversation, she told me I can make history on my own. I just laughed,” she remembers. Eight years after the meeting, she can unarguably lay claim to having scripted her own history. The day is not far when she herself can enter history textbooks.

***

Mirabai Chanu knows her technique and body inside out, an awareness that comes with experience. (PTI Photo)

“Textbook technique”, whispers Vijay Sharma, his eyes gently rolling over Mirabai’s grip and stance. “It’s not a tight grip, it’s not loose either. When she holds the barbell aloft, the distance between her arms is almost the same as the distance between her feet. This gives her terrific balance. The weight is evenly spread on both her feet,” explains Sharma, leaning against a table inside the spacious weightlifting hall at the Shilaroo Academy, assessing, admonishing and encouraging his trainees. When the bar is over her head, her body is X-shaped.

He resumes raving about her technique. “Look, there’s no violence even when she drops the bar down. Look how smooth she is when she lifts it. The bar doesn’t fall to either side, which means she is in absolute control. She’s pure technique and explosiveness,” he says.

By explosiveness, he implies her languid upward thrust — a singular movement of petite explosiveness than vein-ripping muscularity. In her hands, weightlifting ceases to be a gargling physical extremity, rather she elevates it to an artistic endeavour. “From the first time I saw, she has been like this, she was almost fully formed. A few minor changes were all that was required of her,” Sharma appraises her.

Most importantly, she knows her technique and body inside out, an awareness that comes with experience. She agrees: “Even a minor technical discrepancy can affect the way I lift, especially the balance. So I diagnose the flaws quite early. I watch my videos over and over again with my coaches to eradicate even the minutest of mistakes. It’s like a building, if the base is shaky, the entire building collapses.”

The technical sturdiness makes her less prone to injuries—weightlifters are insanely vulnerable to injuries like bulging discs, frayed tendons, sore shoulders and inflamed knees—though not entirely foolproof. “It’s the harsh reality of our lives. We come to hear stories everyday, of players quitting after injuries,” she says.

It’s one of the reasons Mirabai is not hurrying her comeback. She’d skip the World Championship in November and fully focus on the Olympic qualifiers next year. A World Championship medal would’ve ensured her an automatic entry to the Olympics, but she doesn’t want to risk her fitness.

“Although I have started training, and the back is not aching anymore, I’m still not optimally fit. I will compete in events only if I’m 100 per cent fit. Moreover, there are a lot of (Olympic) qualifying events next year,” she points out.

Another challenge awaits her: the 48kg category has been upgraded to 49kg in the Olympics. “It’s not difficult to put on that extra kg, but it means you have to lift more weight. I’m targeting to lift between 205-210. That should, hopefully, realise my dream,” she says.

Her best at an event is 196, she routinely lifts up to 198 during practice. Breaching the 200kg-barrier, in two years, is arduous, for normally after you touch 190s, you move up incrementally, like a couple of kilos a year. “I have to, if I’m to win a medal in Tokyo for my country. And I’m not thinking of anything else but a medal,” she asserts. It is quite a burden to carry. But she has broad shoulders (figuratively than literally). And a textbook technique.

***

For Khel Ratna Chanu, her mother’s day out, a first outside Manipur Mirabai Chanu and her mother Tombi in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

In the last two years, Mirabai has visited her home just once. It was for a felicitation after the Commonwealth Games. But she could stay for just two days. Those two days flew by. “I visited as many friends and relatives as I could, but still I missed out on a lot of people. I wish I had more days, but the Asian Games camp had begun,” she says.

Nonetheless, she returned to Patiala content. “For two days, I felt like I were in a different world, a heaven, amidst the hills and valleys, fresh air, home food. I felt like I were a small girl, and I felt so refreshed when I returned to Patiala, though I missed my mummy a lot,”

While the world looks at her in awe, she looks at her mother in awe. “She’s the strongest woman I’ve seen. She has made a lot of sacrifices for me. Whenever I make small sacrifices for the sport, like cutting out junk food like pizza and burger, I think of the big sacrifices she’d made for me. Thinking of her gives me a lot of courage,” she specifies.

Home is her concept of heaven. “You’ve to come to Manipur to realise it,” she says. She has no second thoughts about settling down in her village after she retires. And then sleep peacefully in her mother’s lap everyday, the medals clinking in the mild mountain breeze, like a lullaby.

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