Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu is ready to bury ghosts of the Rio Olympics in Tokyo on Saturday
On Saturday, India will be rooting for Mirabai Chanu to win a long-awaited Olympics medal in weightlifting in Tokyo.
Every athlete dreams of being an Olympian once. A minuscule achieve their dreams, even fewer become two-time Olympians. The percentage drops even further if you narrow it down to those considered medal favourites in both attempts.
Yes, this tag rested comfortably on the small but mighty shoulders of Mirabai Chanu, who was India's sole weightlifting representative at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics.
Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, the girl from the East Imphal district of Manipur scripted history as she won the silver medal in the Women's 49kg Weightlifting event at the Tokyo Olympics. Arguably no other fellow Indian athlete in the history of the country's sporting annals has walked into the quadrennial extravaganza with the reputation of a sure-shot medal contender.
Mirabai shot into the limelight as a young 19-year-old who won a silver medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games behind her statemate Sanjita Chanu in the 48kg category.
She entered the Rio Olympics in 2016 as one of the medal favourites in her category. The stars had aligned in her favour with the Chinese gold-medal favourite not being selected.
What happened next remained a mystery to Indian sports lovers as she failed in her first and third snatch attempts of 82kg and 84 kg, respectively. Her only success was in the 82kg on her second attempt.
At the end of the first half of the competition (snatch), she was in the sixth position and a good 7kg behind the first-placed Sopita Tanasan. But the third-placed lifter was just 1kg ahead of Mirabai. Her first attempt at 104kg (clean-and-jerk) and second and third attempt to lift 106kg failed, and she was one of the only two lifters who could not register a total.
In retrospect, it seemed her confidence lay at her bootlaces after the snatch competition.
Sport is unpredictable, but weightlifting is otherwise predictable as the lifter knows their capacity and the rest of the opponents.
Mirabai's ups and downs in the last Olympic cycle
Mirabai became the World Champion in 2017 and won the gold medal at the Commonwealth Games 2018. She was looking forward to an exciting roster at the 2018 Asian Games and the World Championships.
A back injury swallowed her hopes, and she waited till 2019 to make her return at the EGAT Cup in early 2019, where she lifted a total of 192 kg (82+110).
She faced the Chinese Hou Zhihui at the 2019 Asian and World Championships and 2021 Asian Championships — her next three tournaments.
2019 Asian Championships
CLEAN & JERK
2019 World Championships
CLEAN & JERK
2021 Asian Championships
CLEAN & JERK
2017 World Championships
CLEAN & JERK
2019 Commonwealth Championships
CLEAN & JERK
It was very evident that Mirabai's snatch efforts got somewhere stagnated over this Olympics cycle, whereas her Clean and Jerk improved by 10%.
The Chinese gold medal favourite entered the second phase of competitions with hefty leads ranging from 6kg to 10kg. The gap has been similar with the other Chinese (absent in Tokyo) Jiang Huhua. Even the now-withdrawn North Korean lifter Ri Song Gum had a headstart over the Indian.
Bridging the gap
The ever-increasing lifts in clean & jerk showcase the increasing leg strength of the Indian, but specific physical imbalances have capped her Snatches.
The recently concluded Asian Championships saw her miss two 85kg lifts. Mirabai's coach Vijay Sharma felt a psychological barrier at that weight and convinced her to lift a kilo more, which she did.
What followed in the second half was history, as the Indian set a world record in the clean & jerk for 119 kg, beating Hou and Jiang for the first time.
Finding a solution
It is not easy to play catch up every time with the mighty Chinese. And with the fast-improving Indonesian Aisah Cantika and American Jourdan Delacruz snapping at Mirabai's heels, it was imperative to stay 100% fit.
Aisah snatched more than Mirabai at the Asian Championships this year for the first time.
An evaluation of Chanu's condition by a former American weightlifter-turned-physiotherapist, Aaron Horschig, spelt some scary conclusions. Right shoulder instability and weakness, left shoulder mobility restrictions, left hip mobility, and stability problems.
The asymmetries led to excessive loads on the firmer side, leading to imbalances. For the moment, though, the coach, athlete, and physio feel the physical problems have been rectified.
July 24, Mirabai's D-day
Mirabai participated on the second day of the Olympics, amongst the first of the Indian athletes to perform on the biggest stage.
The pressure and expectations from the nation, her coach, her fellow athletes was the same as last time in Rio, with just one notable difference — the presence of Hou Zhihui.
But in her mind, indeed, Mirabai's focus was to complete all six lifts.
Along with the world weightlifting fraternity, India was waiting to see if Chinese women can be defeated at the world's biggest stage. Then Karnam Malleswari may not be India's only weightlifter medallist at the Olympics after all.