To be the best in any field one has to make sacrifices, says India weightlifter Mirabai Chanu
Women from small towns and cities have changed the landscape of India’s sport. Without adequate training and resources at their disposal, they have gone on to shine at international competitions and made a name for their country. Indian weight-lifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu is one such example.
A regular presence at international events since 2014 in the 48 kg category, Mirabai has won the World Championships and multiple medals at the Commonwealth Games. Awarded India's highest civilian sports honour, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2018 and the Padma Shri in the same year, her journey has been inspirational, to say the least.
Born in Nongpok Kakching, Mirabai Chanu was raised in Manipur’s capital city Imphal (Manipur). She was an outdoors person and enjoyed playing with her friends after school. “People often thought I was a tomboy since I had many male friends in school,” she says.
Initially interested in archery as a sport, Mirabai took to weightlifting when she saw the exploits of veteran Kunjarani Devi. “During that period, every Manipuri girl wanted to be like her,” she tells HerStory.
Mirabai started weightlifting professionally 11 years ago at the age of 14. Interestingly, weight training began with picking up blocks of firewood.As a child, I often accompanied my elder brother to collect firewood. These bundles of wood, which we carried back home, in a way formed a part of my informal training.
Making the most of resources
However, the resources to get her going in weightlifting were sparse and inadequate. She says, “When I decided to pursue weightlifting as a career, there were no weightlifting centres in my village and I had to travel 60 km every day for training.”Mirabai’s coach Anita Chanu started her training with bamboo trunks. “She would ask me to bring bamboo trunks, which were used as barbells for technique training. During the course of my training, I realised that in weightlifting you have to start with technique training followed by strength building.”
In weightlifting, a nutritious diet is also key. “Weightlifting is an expensive sport and requires a nutritious diet with different proteins, vitamins and supplements. In my early days, I could only afford chicken and eggs 2-3 times a week.”
Welspun India, a Mumbai based textile company has helped her with both monetary and non-monetary aid in her journey to become a champion.
Mirabai Chanu brings India first World Weightlifting Championships gold in 22 years
Success and failure
“Initially, I performed well and started competing at higher-level tournaments, which is when I realised that in order to excel, I needed to put in more hard work and sacrifices. It was this desire to be the best that led me to being a professional in this sport,” she says.
Mirabai Chanu’s first breakthrough came in the form of a silver in women’s 48 kg weight class in 2014. This was at the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow and in the 2018 edition in Gold Coast, she claimed the gold. In 2017, she won the gold at the World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, US. This victory came after 22 years and she was the second woman to win gold after Karnam Malleswari.
In 2019, in the Asian Weightlifting Championships, she won a Bronze in Clean and Jerk in the 49 kg category.
But life as a champion was not all rosy for Mirabai.My most challenging moment would have to be the one where I was disqualified from the 2016 Olympics, Rio. I had put in a lot of hours and hard work to prepare for this big event but I think my nerves got the better of me in that high-pressure situation. Interestingly, I had personal records where I had lifted more weight than the required limit to proceed to the next round in the 2016 Olympics.
Accolades and recognition
In 2018, she received both the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award, and the Padma Shri, a prestigious honour for a sportsperson.
“I vividly remember being on a holiday in Manipur when I received the call informing that I will be awarded the Padma Shri. It is a pivotal milestone in my life and my parents too are extremely happy and proud.”
Mirabai Chanu receiving the Padma Shri from President Ram Nath Kovind.
Her family has been a strong pillar of support in all her endeavours. She says, “They taught me that simply playing well and competing was not good enough, and that I should chase greatness. They urged me to realise my potential, never settle for anything less and attain my goals. My mother ensured my diet was taken care of and her simple nudges of refraining me from using my phone until late in the night, made sure I rested well. It is their belief in me that has enabled me to reach where I am today.”
Mirabai feels a lot of women still don’t get the support they need.
She adds,Support and guidance from family go a long way for any individual treading on the path to become a professional athlete. There are umpteen examples of female athletes of our country repeatedly proving that they can be as successful as men, if not more. However, there is still a lack of support and encouragement from families and society. This, I believe, needs to change!
Discipline- the mark of a winner
For Mirabai, the secret to her success is discipline.
“Discipline is the key to excel in any sport. I train for almost six to seven hours every day, which includes one hour of running and two sessions of intense weightlifting practice. My family and friends often go out, while I choose to stay back and train. However, in order to be the best in any field, one has to make sacrifices in life and I am no different.”
(Edited by Rekha Balakrishnan)
Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu wins India its first gold at Commonwealth Games 2018