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How Indian weightlifters are restored to full health after lifting loads more than their weights

In the hyper-competitive world of modern-day sport, health experts have become a key contributing factor in ensuring weightlifters are able to put their best foot forward at competitions in their pursuit of glory.

Indian weightlifter Mirabai Chanu

Mirabai Chanu (Source: IWF)


The Bridge Desk

Updated: 5 May 2021 9:35 AM GMT

As the national anthem played and the tricolour was hoisted at the Asian Championships in Tashkent, Jhilli Dalabehera stood proudly on the podium to take in her moment of glory. Yes, the field had been depleted to just two athletes. Yes, her weight division, 45kg, was not part of the Olympic program. Yes, the total weight she lifted, 157kg, was seven kilograms below her personal best. However, hidden away behind all the statistics and unknown to anyone beyond her inner circle, Jhilli's moment in the spotlight nearly didn't happen. That this 22-year old from Odisha was on the flight to Tashkent was a remarkable achievement in itself, possible in no small part to the intervention of the dedicated and skilled support staff in her corner.

In March, with a month to go for the championships, Jhilli was in severe pain in her upper left thigh. Unable to complete squats or dip in her stance, the very essence of weightlifting, Jhilli's opportunity to compete, much less than winning medals, was severely compromised. Having collaborated previously with the team from the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital Sports Science and Medicine (SSM) Centre, National Coach Vijay Sharma thought it prudent to seek out their expertise. Nilesh Makwana, a senior sports physiotherapist at the centre linked up at the camp in Patiala with his colleague Hariyali Barot, a sports physiotherapist who had been working with the national team for the past two years, and they began the task of restoring Jhilli to full health.

Finding the root of problems

Nilesh working on the physio of a weightlifter

Identifying the root of the problem was the first challenge for Makwana & Barot, and on close examination of Jhilli's training videos they made a startling discovery. Her left limb was one and a half centimetres longer than the right, creating the visual illusion that her body was tilted to the right during the lift. Jhilli told the physios that while that may appear to be the case, she felt a greater weight on her left side. Her right hip was also sore. While tackling the symptoms, Makwana & Barot were aware that a lasting solution needed to be found. While loading up for her lift, the pain would return to Jhilli's thigh. Not wanting to change her biomechanics and muscle memory, they hit upon the solution after a couple of weeks of observation.

Working on for the gold medal

Jhilli was asked to remove the insole in her left shoe, and wear two socks that fit properly during her training. Alongside, Barot focused on the soft tissue while Makwana concentrated on the hip abductor of the left side and within three weeks, their simple yet elegant solution had borne fruit. While lifting, the weight was distributing equally on both legs and from finding it difficult to complete the clean & jerk because of the pain, Jhilli was able to perform at nearly her optimum capacity. In Tashkent, restored to almost full fitness and virtually pain-free, Jhilli produced an impeccable performance to win Gold, a first for India at the Asian Championships since Karnam Malleswari's feat 26 years ago.

Intervention for all

"As is evident in Jhilli's case, individualised rehabilitation and treatment programs are the key," says Heath Mathews, Head of SSM at the Sir HN Reliance Foundation Hospital. "The decisive work done by Nilesh and supported by Hariyali, allowed her to quickly recover from injury and be able to train fully under the expert guidance of the coaches. Not just for Jhilli, Nilesh and Hariyali's interventions helped several other national-level weightlifters. Besides providing physiotherapy expertise, they also coordinated the needs in the nutrition and sports psychological departments to the respective central team members who helped them with expert interventions and implementation strategies."

Indian weightlifters along with staff

Mirabai Chanu, who won bronze among a tough field in the 49kg division at the Asian championships, setting a new world record in the clean & jerk with a lift of 119kg, is another lifter who received the timely intervention. Mirabai, who confirmed her spot for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics with this performance, was unable to lift beyond 70-75kgs in the snatch during training due to persistent pain in her right shoulder and wrist. As a direct consequence of the pain, she started to transfer the load of her lifts to the front of her shoulder, creating further discomfort.

Coach Sharma sought Makwana's input and after her initial scepticism, Mirabai started to embrace the modifications he suggested in her regimen. Each session involved using a flex bar to strengthen the forearm muscles, allowing her wrists to bear a greater load. Makwana noticed the internal rotation of her shoulder was restricted, forcing her to bear a greater impact on her shoulder and wrist and increasing the risk of injury.

How it helped Mirabai Chanu?

His solution was to follow the unconventional "Sleeper Stretch" method, whose effectiveness was explained to coach Sharma. Under Makwana's supervision, Mirabai followed the correct technique for the exercise, and soon enough, the internal rotation of the shoulder improved considerably. Basic symptom modification exercises like shoulder flexion with loop bands and isolation internal and external rotation were added to Mirabai's routine besides mobilisation for the Thoracic spine and neck to avoid stiffness.

Makwana & Barot also remained in constant touch with former American weightlifter-turned-physiotherapist, Aaron Horschig, who had worked with Mirabai at his facility in St. Louis, USA in the latter half of 2020 and played a critical role in her recovery from injury. As the championships approached, Mirabai felt better and from being unable to lift beyond 70-75kgs in the snatch, she lifted 86kgs in Tashkent.

Individualised programs for every weightlifter

Besides Jhilli and Mirabai, several other weightlifters are benefiting from these individualised programs. Achita Sheuli, who competes in the 73kg division, was able to recover from acute spasms caused while training in March with a carefully crafted program that included rehydration, mobility drills, and motor control exercises. He finished 7th in his category at the Asian Championships, four places above his standing at the same event in 2019. Jeremy Lalrinnunga, who finished eighth in Tashkent in the 67kg division, is being assisted in his battle with chronic calf pain and a flared meniscus in his right knee. Satish Sivalingam, in the 81kg category is on the path to recovery after sustaining an injury in 2020 while doing 205kg squats. P Anuradha, who competes in the 87kg category is getting attention for her core, glutes, and hamstring with a strength training program.

"The expertise provided by the specialists from the Sir HN Reliance Foundation hospital has been invaluable for our weightlifters," says coach Sharma. "As a result of their untiring efforts, our lifters have not just recovered from injury but also learned about the latest developments in the area of sports science and medicine. This has ensured that our coaching staff has been able to work with fully fit athletes, enabling them to perform to their full potential. I am convinced that in the years ahead, with the benefit of this expertise, our athletes will produce strong performances on the world stage."

Hariyali helping weightlifters recover

"We have been working with the national weightlifting team for three years and over this time we have developed a really strong relationship with the coaches and the athletes," adds Mathews. "We have assessed lifters and their injuries and it is extremely rewarding to see an athlete we have worked with win a medal. Our physios, nutritionists and psychologists truly are unsung heroes, playing a small but significant part in the athletes' success."

Besides assisting the weightlifters, the SSM team at the Sir HN Reliance Foundation hospital has also been collaborating with athletes from several other sports including badminton, track & field, and archery. In the hyper-competitive world of modern-day sport, their expertise has become a key contributing factor in ensuring these athletes are able to put their best foot forward at competitions in their pursuit of glory.

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