Anita Chanu: Manipur's secret in churning out world class weightlifters
What is common between all the champion weightlifters from Manipur? It is their coach Anita Chanu, who broke locks for Bindyarani Devi and went to Mirabai Chanu's home to stop her from quitting the sport.
Imphal: Anita Chanu was one of India's first woman weightlifters. She took up the sport in the 1980s, at a time when it was unheard of for women to lift loads for sport, even though lifting heavy logs was supposed to be part of their daily work.
Her contemporary Kunjarani Devi went on to achieve international glory as an athlete, but Anita had to end her career due to a leg injury. Her dreams, however, did not stop there as she turned to coaching and has devoted her entire life to churn out world champion weightlifters since then.
From Bindyarani Devi, who called Anita from Birmingham after her Commonwealth Games silver medal saying she won all because of her help, to Mirabai Chanu, whose parents Anita convinced to not let her quit weightlifting, to Arjuna awardees Sonia Chanu and Renu Bala Chanu before them, it is this coach who is the common link between all of the weightlifting behemoths who have emerged from Manipur over the last two decades.
In a conversation with The Bridge at the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex in Manipur, Anita Chanu said, "When I was I kid I loved to listen to sports news on the radio and loved to dream of myself as a player. Women's weightlifting was not in the Olympics till 2000, by when I had retired, but I did manage a 4th-place finish at the 1990 Asian Games."
Anita Chanu remembers running up the hills skirting her village of Luwangsangbam in an attempt to 'train' for sports because there was no other way to avail coaching in her childhood. Now, almost 25 years after her retirement, the training centre she set up in that village is a boon for those in northern Manipur for whom travelling to Imphal is difficult.
Making a champion - Mirabai Chanu
Like Mirabai Chanu, who showed up all alone at her door as a 12-year-old girl wanting to learn the sport under her in 2006.
"Whenever aspiring lifters come to us for the first time, we try to understand their family background - what their family does, how they come to the training centre, what food they usually eat. Mirabai was from a poor background and had to travel a long way to train everyday, but what stood out about her was her determination," Anita said.
Mirabai was rarely on time, as she had to help her family in the fields before taking the long 25km journey (often on backs of trucks she would take lifts from). It was unprofessional to be late, but Anita realised this was a special case.
"I personally went to her home and talked to her parents, trying to convince them of the amount of potential she had. I asked them to keep sending her to train whatever situation arose," she said.
"Another thing that set Mirabai apart from others was how clean her mind was. There have been many others who had potential but who then fail to perform on the big stage because they have double thoughts. Mirabai had no such problems, she single-mindedly followed every advice her coaches gave her," she said.
When Mirabai finally gave her validation by winning a World Championship medal, Anita found herself crying. When her most famous ward came back to India after her Tokyo Olympics triumph last year, they went to pray together and express their gratitude to the Gods.
Bindyarani's secret ally
2022 CWG silver medallist Bindyarani Devi also has a lot of gratitude for Anita Oja, as she calls her.
In a conversation with The Bridge, Bindyarani said, "The state's training ground is a bit congested, they only have two or three platforms and there are many students. Seeing my efforts, Anita Oja told me to come to her training centre and she gave me a separate training platform there."
Anita concurs, also adding that Bindyarani called her from Birmingham after her CWG triumph, saying that her medal was all because of her coaching.
"In weightlifting, you cannot ever stop training. During Covid, the SAI centre was closed and that was when Bindyarani came to me. We planned to break the lock of the SAI centre so that she could train in secret (laughs)," Anita said.
Giving up national role to focus on grassroots
Anita Chanu holds her identity as a coach working with grassroots athletes close to her heart. She says she was asked many times to join the national camp in Patiala, but that she refused because she wanted to work with work-in-progress athletes - like the 12-year-old Mirabai or the 21-year-old Bindyarani who showed up looking for a place to train.
"My ultimate dream was to win an Asian Games medal, but I didn't succeed in this. I then turned my focus on training other aspiring athletes from here so that they could achieve what I couldn't," she said.
Earlier in her playing days, in her quest to become like the sports heroes she would hear about on the radio, Anita took up various sports like Athletics, Football and Powerlifting before she found her calling in Weightlifting. She won medals at the state and national levels in Shot Put, was selected for the national football team and represented India in international meets in Powerlifting.
After her shift to Weightlifting, she won two bronze medals at the Asian Women's Weightlifting Championships in 1992.
In 2010, she received the Dhyan Chand Award, the lifetime achievement sporting honour.
"God has gifted Manipuris the ability to play sports. Our climate is conducive for sports, it helps in fast muscle recovery. Our food habit is also helpful for sports. Also, our height and physique helps us succeed in sports like weightlifting. Our local festivals like the Lai Haraoba are also important in this regard, as we are encouraged to play sports in front of our Gods," Anita said on how her home state continues producing champion athletes.