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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Mirabai Chanu raises the barbell and her game in dramatic fashion

The ace weightlifter set a new world record in her last attempt to win bronze at the Asian Championship.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: April 18, 2021 7:53:15 am
India's Saikhom Mirabai Chanu (File Photo/AP)

‘Dil nikaal diya tha mera’.

Jeremy Lalrinnunga was so emotionally invested that every moment of Mirabai Chanu’s ‘double century’ at the Asian Championship, including a world record lift in clean and jerk, became a rollercoaster ride, peppered with delightful insights, a few jokes and some melodrama.

The weightlifter’s live feed on Instagram, accompanied by his unfiltered narration, sounded more like the passionate Latin American or Arabic football commentary that often goes viral on social media. Then again, the thrill element in Chanu’s match was no less than a last-minute winner in a football game.

The heart-in-mouth moment, as Jeremy described it, came right at the beginning of Chanu’s bronze medal-winning performance. The 26-year-old had failed to nail a lift in the first two of her three total attempts. A third ‘no-lift’ and her Championship would be over and her credentials as a medal-favourite for Olympics would come under the scanner. The debacle of the Rio Olympics, where she crashed out after being unable to complete her event, loomed large in Tashkent on Saturday.

But this time Chanu did not fumble. In her final attempt in snatch, she lifted 86kg and after she signed off with an incredible 119kg lift in clean and jerk, bettering the world record by 1kg, Jeremy whooped from the stands. Chanu joined him from the platform, grinning ear to ear as she cemented her reputation as one of India’s biggest hopes at the Tokyo Games in July.

The combined total of 205kg is the best she has ever lifted.

The two lifters who finished above her are both Chinese. Hou Zhihui won the gold with a total score of 213 (96 in snatch and 117 in clean and jerk) and her compatriot Jiang Huihua got the silver with a lift of 207kg (89 in snatch, 118 in clean and jerk).

At the Olympics, however, only one of them will be able to compete as the rules allow each country to field just one lifter. Ri-Song Gum, the only other weightlifter who has lifted more than 200kg, is already out of contention after North Korea pulled out of the Games. Thus all Chanu really needs to do to finish on the podium in Tokyo is match Saturday’s performance. Still, it won’t be so straightforward.

Chanu’s biggest opponent now will be her body itself.

After the 2018 Commonwealth Games, where she enthralled the Gold Coasters with a stunning exhibition in weightlifting to win the gold, Chanu complained of lower back pain. The injury was as mysterious as it was severe. Top doctors across the country examined her but were unable to diagnose the problem.

For nine months after that, she was out of action, missing the Asian Games and the World Championships that year. When she returned, the Imphal-native, who lifted hundreds of kilos for fun, could not even lift 50kg in training. Somehow, she overcame the phase where she doubted if she could ever compete again.

Since then, there has been gradual progress in her totals. At the continental championships in 2019, she bettered her CWG tally by three kilos to lift a total of 199kg. At the World Championship in Pattaya last year, she crossed the 200kg-mark for the first time by totalling 201kg.

As she set her sights on a bigger total, the pandemic struck and training stopped. When she returned, Chanu once again complained about her back as the pain resurfaced. It did not appear to be as bad as the previous occasion but Saturday was the first time in almost 18 months that Chanu competed.

Chanu 2.0 is stronger and more resilient, as was evident from her heroic lift in the clean and jerk section. National coach Vijay Sharma has emphasised in the past the need to improve Chanu’s tally in the snatch, where the barbell has to be lifted in one smooth motion. And if Saturday was anything to go by, Chanu’s lifting in this event remains a concern.

A bigger worry, though, will be to keep her from getting injured. As long as that will be taken care of, and Chanu continues her form, India can hope to open its medal tally on the opening day of the Tokyo Games.

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