The lion whisperer: How Sandhya Gurung shaped an Olympic medallist
From a shy girl to a lion that roars in the ring - Lovlina Borgohain's Dronacharya awardee coach Sandhya Gurung reveals what it took to ignite the fire.
If you happen to visit Kumartuli during the months preceding Durga Puja and take a tour through its winding lanes and bylanes, you will find awkwardly standing half-clad, half-painted, half-molded lumps of clay awaiting transformation by the time the skies fill up with puffy cotton clouds of autumn.
Between the days before Goddess Durga finally arrives and its nondescript start as just another lump of clay - lies a story of creation itself. Call them miracle workers if you will or simply artists left to toy with magic - but these are the people who make it happen, investing their creation with their spirit - permeating through the membranes of the created, breathing the idols to life.
Some 300 miles away from this City of Joy, in the little big hill town of Gangtok, Sikkim where fog festoons over the Himalayas, another such creator lives - a sculptor of Olympic champions. The very first female boxing coach from Sikkim and recently selected Dronacharya awardee, Sandhya Gurung, mild-statured, armed with a voice that smiles warmly, did just that with the raw clay she received in the form of a lanky, 5'10" tall girl from Assam's Golaghat district - one Lovlina Borgohain.
A pinch of belief and the roar of success
On 30th July 2021, Assam's Lovlina Borgohain waited in the player's tunnel of the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, ahead of Chinese Taipei's Chen Nien-Chin - nervous beads of sweat dotting her forehead, a flurry of emotions coursing through her veins - mainly a surge of adrenaline mixed with determination, before the quarter-finals at the Tokyo Olympics.
These emotions before entering a ring, especially against an opponent who is a former World Champion, whom Lovlina had lost to in every previous meeting, were new for the 24-year-old Assamese boxer. Still, on that day, there was no shred of self-doubt or fear obscuring Lovlina's vision from getting the bronze.
Clad in a red jersey, Lovlina stepped out, all smiles for the camera, air-punching away - no signs of fear whatsoever in her walk, as the shorter Chen Nien-Chin, the 2018 World Champion, followed right behind, more than eager to get her hands on the bronze after the quarter-final bout. In the minutes that ensued and that which will remain etched in the memory of any Indian boxing fan, Lovlina went on to create history.
With every punch Lovlina hit, every jab she went for, Lovlina boxed away her fears. Gone was that element of doubt and hesitancy as Lovlina's rock-solid defense helped her hold the fort against one of the finest in the business. Closer home, Sandhya Gurung, used to shouting instructions at Lovlina from the ringside, couldn't put a lid on her excitement as well seeing Lovlina conquer her opponents with belief and skill and inch closer to history.
And it was done.
The bronze came Lovlina's way as she won the bout 4-1 in a split decision rather convincingly and booked herself a chance to fight against Turkey's Busenaz Surmeneli, the eventual Tokyo Olympics gold medallist.
"I wanted to prove it to myself more than anyone. Call it an act of revenge, but I wanted to take it after losing to her four times previously - I thought, this will be the perfect opportunity and stage for it, if I can do something," Lovlina said after the win, which she carried out without following any particular strategy but rather, using spontaneity as her surprise element that left Chin guessing.
I am grateful to everyone for your love and support. 🙏🙏 pic.twitter.com/M3BZ5FvpCS— Lovlina Borgohain (@LovlinaBorgohai) August 4, 2021
With the bronze fought and deservingly won, Sandhya Gurung, even though she wasn't present with Lovlina at the Ryōgoku Kokugikan, ensured that her idol is now complete - Lovlina had arrived on the big stage, as she roared triumphantly after the victory - the echoes far-reaching as she became the very first Olympic medallist from Assam.
The 'lion' whisperer
But, how did it happen?
How did Lovlina Borgohain - a girl who started with Muay Thai, was afraid of entering the boxing ring, flinched at big punches, was barely a decent boxer initially, manage to look in the eye of her worst fears and defeat them?
Behind this mysteriously successful transformation lies one woman, Sandhya Gurung, and a miraculous phrase that worked like magic for Lovlina - "Tum sherni nahi ho, tum sher ho. (You aren't a lioness, you are a lion)," as Sandhya has been whispering in her ears for the last couple of years at a stretch.
Quite the Pavlovian example to set, but Sandhya did what she had to do, injecting courage and the power to believe in oneself. "She would be so shy and afraid, especially in the big tournaments. So, I would tell her - Tum sherni nahi, tum sher ho. By this, I never meant that being a lioness is not strong enough, but I wanted to instill that sense of belief and ignite the fire in her," Sandhya tells The Bridge.
In a boxing match, before going out on the canvas, a battle of nerves takes place. Scoring is a tricky matter in boxing - you cannot afford to spend precious minutes inside the ring being distracted or not at your best - every moment counts in the bout. In many ways, boxing is symbolic of life - you need to know when to keep your guards up, when to let it down - which punches to land, which jabs to hit, which hook shots to play, and after you've given it your all - you await the final judgment. Did you win? Did you lose? The gamble of self-belief is so much in this case.
"Before the match against Chen Nien-Chin, Lovlina and I spoke, and together we discussed what to do. She was apprehensive because she had never won against the Taiwanese, but I told her - you go out there. You give your best, fight it out, give it your all and go out there thinking that you are here to win and not defeat somebody," Sandhya Gurung recalled the conversation, clear as day.
Sandhya, who couldn't go to Tokyo to be beside her star pupil because of the limited number of people allowed per player, owing to the COVID-19 restrictions, ensured that she and Lovlina stayed throughout the Olympics in touch, discussing matches, opponents, and strategy. It's strange how just a little bit of self-belief can take us places and Sandhya, with her life's book of lessons to pick from, did just that for Lovlina - showing her how to believe in herself and go for it, undaunted, unfettered.
And there it was - Lovlina Borgohain stormed to life - an Olympic bronze medallist. Yet neither the freshly coronated Arjuna awardee, Lovlina, or her chief creator, Sandhya Gurung, seems settled with the brown metal. The quest and hunger for the gold remain.
"Yes, she has won the bronze, and I'm pleased. But it's the gold that matters," Sandhya insists, a baffling tone of chirpy humility in her voice, a thing which she shares in common with Lovlina as well and her resolve to fight and get gold.
Really very happy to receive the Arjuna award memento today 🥳🥳 pic.twitter.com/BglSl0CY1L— Lovlina Borgohain (@LovlinaBorgohai) November 1, 2021
"A lot of hard work needs to be done for it, and it won't happen like this. But Lovlina has always been a very disciplined and hard-working girl and she has never said no to me in anything in training - I'm really happy but there is a long way ahead for her," Sandhya mentions - indicating how the reign of her lion has just about started.
'Dil ye ziddi hai'
Growing up, sports was one of the first things that made itself apparent in the dictionary of Sandhya Gurung. The tryst with boxing was only fated to happen later, but the interest in being outdoors and on the field was always present. Yet life had different plans for Sandhya when she was in the prime of her adolescence and in her schooldays when she met with a car accident that left her paralyzed and bed-ridden for three whole years.
"It was a very difficult, depressing phase in my life, I couldn't move or play, and back then, I never imagined I could come back to sports," Sandhya recalls. However, timely interventions and ayurvedic remedies came to aid, and Sandhya's recovery also began. Almost immediately after she recovered, Sandhya, whose father would frequent the football clubs and play and has a brother who is into boxing and a sister, was married off in the next couple of years.
It's difficult to imagine life starting anew after marriage, especially in an Indian context, but in Sandhya Gurung's story, stereotyping isn't the norm to follow here. Soon, Sandhya even had a daughter, and life seemed to be going everywhere but towards sports. Sandhya's husband, Manoj Kumar Limbu who was in the army, was a boxer, and it was because of him, Sandhya chanced to see boxing up-close for the first time in 1997.
Around this time, Arjuna awardee army man Jas Lal Pradhan visited Gangtok to start teaching boxing when Sandhya's path crossed with him. Women's boxing was still to start then, but Sandhya's interest bloomed, and she wanted to take it up. Sandhya's husband, concerned about the gain in her weight also pushed her to be more active, his only fear being that what if her paralysis relapses or she gets hurt, in the process? But Sandhya was dauntless - ready to take on whatever challenge thrown her way.
Jas Lal Pradhan would at first laugh it off and ask - "Can a girl play like this?" to which Sandhya would quip back, "If a boy can play, why can't a girl?"
This indomitable spirit pushed Sandhya to box in 2000, and there was no looking back then. While her sister offered to take care of Sandhya's daughter, who was ten by then, her mother and husband egged her on - helping her concentrate on the sport. Backed with the love and support and so many near and dear ones, Sandhya boxed, won several accolades, fell in love with the sport, and ended her career with a gold medal in 2008, when she reached the then retiring age of 34.
In 2008, Sandhya was serving as the State Coach in Sikkim that her coaching plans took off - she wanted to give back to the sport, now. Soon, she finished a diploma in coaching, and from 2010, her coaching stint began with the Youth nationals, and eventually, a few years later, the Seniors.
"My elder brother was also a boxer but he couldn't finish boxing because he got into the police and wasn't getting enough holidays but then I picked it up and added the finishing touches," the Dronacharya awardee who shaped Lovlina Borgohain, says with a chuckle.
Take a shy girl, and make her roar louder
It is with this sense of belief that Sandhya has achieved what she has today. An expert at turning the narrative into her favor and bouncing back from adversities - Sandhya Gurung is essentially a fearless force. When she had stumbled across Lovlina, it was way back in 2012, and the lanky youngster had just won gold in the sub-juniors and came to the camp in Bhopal.
"She was a very timid and shy girl, not so tactically strong yet. She was tall and used that height to her advantage to punch along and win. It was a lucky thing - but she was willing to learn."
Lovlina showed promise. She had the fire. But the matches to light the fire took a while to warm up. "I spent some time with her back then and showed her a few basics to do and practice continuously. But I wasn't training her only back then," Sandhya recalled, remembering the initial days of their meeting.
But it was Lovlina who recognized the potential and approached Sandhya to train her - and thus began their journey after 2016 as a regular mentorship. With maternal affection and the sternness of a coach, Sandhya doled out hard but easy love to Lovlina. Thus began the process of shaping up this future idol - one chink, a gentle mold at a time. The results also began to show - a silver in 2017 from Kazakhstan to a bronze at the 2018 Asian Games and the fire was lit for the Olympics as Lovlina targetted the 69kg Welterweight Category.
"I would tell her - you go out and hit this way, and if they hit you, you answer back. Don't just stand...and soon she started getting hit less…," Sandhya mentions, elaborating on how Lovlina's fear factor diminished and the confidence surged with every new bout and words of inspiration from her 'sher' whisperer.
After such tricky matches, Sandhya would ask Lovlina - "Were you afraid?" and Lovlina would say, "No, I wasn't." and "Did your opponent hit you a lot?" and Lovlina would shake her head with a smile and say, "No, she didn't." The changes started slow, but the impact was significant - Lovlina firmed her resolve, and the Olympics was the easy next target.
In a boxing ring, a lot of the battle is mental, and getting intimidated is not an option - you need to go out there and roar loudly like you own that space for the next few minutes. It is this fighting spirit that Sandhya has passed on to Lovlina, who doesn't like to settle with bronzes and silvers as well.
Physical tactfulness and skills are crucial but it is the mental fight that is tougher to win. As far as this idol of Indian boxing is concerned, the creator, Sandhya Gurung has done an impeccable job in transforming her - the finishing touches may be plenty to add here but so far, we cannot get enough of this lion from Assam and hear her roar - freely, confidently and assuringly. We had better watch out for her on the prowl now.