It’s the motivation to win the Olympic gold that keeps pushing Mirabai Chanu year after year, since the first attempt was snuffed out by nerves at Rio in 2016.
Her silver medal at the 2022 World Championships in Bogota, Colombia on late Tuesday, like every other big medal at the highest stage, was bookended by extensive time on the physiotherapist’s table. So, celebrations are always sedate.
But when on the competition stage, under the spotlight, doing the thing she does best, absolutely nothing can wipe out the beaming smile that lights up arenas as one of India’s finest Olympic athletes goes about winning. Mirabai was crowned World Champion in the 49 kg in 2017 at Anaheim – soon after she couldn’t medal at the Rio Games. But coach Vijay Sharma recalls how that finest of redemptions too was sullied by critics citing the absence of world class Chinese lifters.
On Tuesday when she lifted a total of 200kg (87kg snatch + 113kg clean & jerk), both the lifter and coach were elated because that sniping quibble of “no-Chinese” was addressed. “Ever since we started, Mira and me have regularly heard this bakwaas (silliness) about how she won gold only because there were no Chinese in 2017. Today, the top Chinese won gold and bronze, but despite not being at 100 percent and dealing with injury, Mira still took silver and was on the podium. Today we showed we can fight, and we will fight. I’m very, very happy today, happier than ever,” Sharma would say after the silver.
A weight total of 200kg was the stated goal for Sharma on Monday, and he had said: “She has some wrist worries so the only goal is to not dip below 200kg. There are more competitions towards Paris Olympics qualifying and we are aiming for constant performance. Our planning towards Paris gold is very clear to her and to me.”
After picking the silver, he would declare that Mirabai was on track after the body could be patched up properly, to gun for “210-212 kg easily.”
New Chinese contender Jiang Huihua lifted 206kg (93 Snatch +113 C&J) for the gold medal, while Olympic champion Zhihua Hou was on 198 kg for bronze.
“She can improve easily to 210 kg, 212 kg,” Sharma would say, adding, “the Snatch scores can go up from 87 kg to 92-93 kg.”
The coach would give all the credit to the champion lifter for her consistency – in achievement and steadiness in her belief. “Whole credit to her for her determination. Even after winning the Olympic medal at Tokyo, she wants the gold badly, nothing less. Woh Olympic gold ki lalach (motivation) usme abhi bhi hai,” Sharma would say.
The World’s silver has-been pocketed in a year when she smoked the below average field at the Commonwealth Games – keeping up her standard, and staying far ahead even if a lesser weight would’ve still fetched gold. As such, Mirabai Chanu has shown she can show up at the biggest stages and deliver – the one criticism that haunted her when she missed out at Rio.
Yet, the Olympic gold is a further step not exactly in striking distance. It further complicates because of the challenges Mirabai starts out with: natural imbalance in her left and right shoulders.
“Actually, both her shoulders are weak,” the coach explains. “There is a natural upper body imbalance in her, the strength is also not proportionate so if we try to overload, injuries happen.” When the 27-year-old pulls for the overhead load, that snap-short second is when owing to the weaker shoulders, the brunt is borne by the wrist. “Sometimes the back, sometimes the wrist,” Sharma says. It’s in the overcompensating (trying to balance the weight of the bar with the shoulders a wobble) that the wrist or back get into trouble.
The problem took a while diagnosing for years, though a Mumbai physio Dr Nikhil Latey had flagged it some time back. “There’s very few that understand the sport in India. Our sports science is very behind and many won’t even know what muscles are involved in a squat or what is snatch and what is clean, so we must travel to the US. One thing is to identify the problem, but it also takes time working on the solutions, so wrist strengthening is happening, but it’s not complete,” Sharma explains.
Many careers have ended in India, the coach says, because the science of causes if injuries couldn’t be identified. “If we work honestly, I’m hopeful a gold will come since we know what needs to be done and have the problem identified.”
Dr Aaron Horschig in the USA, who helped figure out the wrist and assorted issues, would gift Mirabai and the team a customised beige belt with all their face sketches embossed, ahead of the World’s. “He loves social media, so he got it made and we clicked a picture with it. But it’s his inputs for her injury that have been the real gift for us, saving her career and keeping the gold hopes alive,” Sharma said.