Bandied about as India’s best medal bet at the upcoming 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, Saikham Mirabai Chanu carries a tremendous amount of ‘responsibility ‘on her sturdy shoulders.
After all, Asian Games is a massive platform with so much at stake. In fact, the expectations are sky-high after her eye-catching gold-winning feat at the 2017 World Wrestling Championship in Anaheim, USA.
All the expectations and excitement are only natural, but the news from the Indian weightlifting camp isn’t something that would be music to the ears of our weightlifting fans. Mirabai Chanu is literally battling against ‘time’ to be fit in time for the 2018 Asian Games.
The 24-year-old Manipuri lass has been bogged down by a persistent back injury, which has indeed played a spoiler to her Asian Games preparations. She had sustained the back injury on May 23 and hasn’t been training for the last four weeks.
“It’s really frustrating to go through this phase. I’m done all required tests for this back injury, including MRI, X-ray, etc. but the tests have not revealed anything,” she says in a conversation with The Bridge.
“The point is I feel okay when I’m taking rest but the moment I start training the pain surfaces. I have been in rest mode now and I’m hoping to hit the training drills in the coming week,” the 24-year-old Indian Railway weightlifter says with a tinge of concern.
The mysterious back injury
Mirabai has no doubts that the four weeks’ time left for the Asian Games is more than enough for her to hit peak fitness for the Asian Games. “I will kick off training in the next few days, and if I do not experience any pain there will be no more barriers towards giving my best in the Asiad,” she says, somewhat clearing the air about being a doubtful starter for the Asian Games.
Born to a low-income family in Nongpok, Kakching village, around 20 kms away from capital city Imphal, life has indeed changed for Mirabai after she won the 2017 World Weightlifting Championship in the USA. There is more recognition now than ever before. “It feels good to be recognised for my what I do on the weightlifting floor,” she says.
“My state government (Manipur government) rewarded me a with a cash award of Rs 20 lakh, the central government bestowed me with Padma Shri, my employers, the Railways, promoted me from Senior Ticket Checker to Station Duty Officer at NF Railway, Guwahati and Mahindra & Mahindra gifted me a car. All these will encourage me to strive harder and bag an Olympic medal at Tokyo in 2020,” she continues with a glint of pride.
“It feels good to be recognised for my what I do on the weightlifting floor.”
But there is no denying the fact that the 2017 World Wrestling Championship gold-winning effort in Anaheim has been her most significant career high point.
Rio Olympics was the worst phase of my weightlifting career: Mirabai Chanu
“I achieved my best lift of 194-kg in the 2017 World Wrestling Championship, and I won the gold by the skin of my teeth,” she reminisces.
“I was aware of the threat posed by Thailand weightlifter Thunya Sukcharoen as she kept snapping at my heels before settling for the silver with a lift of 193 kg. Of course, I did not expect much competition from Colombia’s Ana Segura, who performed well to garner the bronze,” Mirabai adds, bubbling with excitement.
The performance at the 2017 World Wrestling Championship obliterated the bitter memories of her 2016 Rio Olympics campaign. “The Rio Olympics was the worst phase of my weightlifting career. I managed to pass only one out of my six lifts. I think I was a bundle of nerves going into those lifts as that was my first Olympics. The World Wrestling Championship gold medal has helped erase the Rio memories,” quips the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games silver medallist.
The world weightlifting body has inducted new weight categories for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which means Mirabai would have to shift to 49kg from her current 48-kg weight category.
“Shifting to a new weight category will be tough for me as I would have train even harder. Many of my competitors in the 48-kg category will be there along with new faces; it will not be easy in Tokyo,” Mirabai says with a note of caution.
From Manipur to the world and beyond
Mirabai’s family worked hard away from the limelight to ensure she could pursue weightlifting. Her father works in the Public Works Department in Imphal, while her mother runs a tea shop. She fondly recalls her childhood days when she used to go up the hills to collect firewood along with her elder brother.
“We both used to arrange firewood for cooking in my house. My elder brother is a state-level footballer and used to help me collect firewood from the hills. My family members have sacrificed a lot, and I’m glad that I’m able to bring a good name to the family. I gave my Rs 20 lakh cash award given by the state government to my mother,” gushes the 48-kg weightlifter who loves shopping. “Shopping is kind of a stress-buster for me. I relish shopping when I am away from my weightlifting duty.”
Representing the country means she is always travelling abroad for competitions or training outside her home state Manipur, and Mirabai misses out enjoying her favourite food item – Konsai (a stew delicacy). “I gorge on Konsai as much as I want when I’m at home, but I don’t get time to prepare Konsai when I’m training in NIS, Patiala – it’s a soup having a blend of tomato and other vegetables,” she signs off.
Indian sports fans would harbour the hope that Mirabai can tide over the back injury and make us proud at the 2018 Asiad.