How Mirabai Chanu, The Hanuman Bhakt From Manipur, Overturned Failure Into Victory Between Two Olympic Games

How Mirabai Chanu, The Hanuman Bhakt From Manipur, Overturned Failure Into Victory Between Two Olympic GamesMirabai Chanu
Snapshot
  • Mirabai Chanu's five years of extensive hard work has won her a silver at the Tokyo Olympic Games for India.

The extraordinary story of Mirabai Chanu stretches itself with incredible beauty between the failure at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games and a triumph over it in Tokyo.

At Rio, she had failed to lift the weight in any of her three attempts at 48 kg in the clean and jerk category. Carrying a billowing weight on her chest of the Rio moment, she returned, to cry it out on her mother's shoulder in Nongpok Kakching village in Imphal, Manipur.

On 24 July (Saturday), the Indian weightlifter won a silver in the 49 kg weightlifting category at the Tokyo Olympic Games. What would she do on meeting her mother in Imphal this time?

Get hugged and share her mother's crying—this time—their crying out of joy.

She told this author over the phone from Imphal: "My mother hugged me tightly and cried. My family became very emotional. They have experienced great happiness. Last time I came back crying. This time I came back with a medal."

In between the two watershed events at Rio and Tokyo, her bhakti for Hanuman, steadfast mental endurance after that deep dip post-Rio, the work to keep herself at 49kg, and to arise as a winner, a medal winner, stood with her.

Her belief in Hanuman leaves a mark in her narrative of herself as a bhakt, performer and achiever.

She says. "I have immense belief in Hanuman, I have his depictions across my room, I used to go to the temple a lot when I started training for weightlifting. Hanuman ji protects wisdom and the heart...I love to visit the temple since the beginning."

In Tokyo, she was behind China's Hou Zhihui. Her medal marks India's weightlifting entry on the podium after a gap of two decades. The world was watching her lift. Would she pass the moment after intense hard work for five years? If she did, she would win a medal for India—straight after the 2000 Sydney Olympic games when weightlifter Karnam Malleswari won bronze.

But that's not exactly what Chanu was thinking. She was thinking of parking something aside. Pressure.

She wanted to shove pressure aside. She succeeded in doing so.

This author spoke to Chanu over the phone amid her hectic schedule of events that are pouring in, in her honour. Here is what she had in mind during the moments before the historic lift—in her own words (translated):

"All that I have put into my training, I would use that (I thought), the medal would come on its own if I gave my best performance. So, I kept the focus to steer across the lift and pass it. It was, after all, about five years of hard work."

She kept away the pressure to build focus for the focus needed to win a medal.

"Initially, there was some pressure that the world ... it's watching. It would build up within. Even then, I kept it on the side... I felt that I will not let go of the five years of hard work just like that, I have to take a medal, and keeping this thought within me, I approached the lift with complete focus."

The biggest and the truest measure of a medal won at the Olympic Games lies with the sportsperson themself. Mirabai told this author that every player wants to win gold, but she is glad that she won the silver.

Mirabai's mother, just as any Indian mother, wished that she should have won the gold (as heard in an interview for one of the news channels). Mirabai laughs at this. "We had a dream—that I win a medal at the Olympic Games. The dream has come true—whether it is gold or bronze or silver. The silver is a huge achievement for me," she adds.

In 2018, when Mirabai Chanu claimed gold in the 48kg category at the Commonwealth Games, Karnam Malleswari mentioned something interesting in her observations while expressing immense happiness and belief in Chanu's journey towards Tokyo. She said that Mirabai competes with herself. With this trait spilling over enough—to be noticed by seniors like Malleswari herself—Chanu was bound to outdo herself and the dips, to soar, eventually.

It has been five years of hard work for Chanu, with about two years of not having to see her family. So, when she got home, after receiving a warm welcome at the Imphal airport where Chief Minister of Manipur N Biren Singh himself went to receive her, she would dig into home-cooked food and a good heap of boiled local rice.

To trigger her love for the local rice, this author mentioned the delicious kheer made from it and its endearing hues and aroma. "I love its kheer. I do carry the rice along with me to training, its kheer is good."

Her mother was the first to spot her talent when the weightlifter would end up picking more firewood than her elder brother. It might have hurt her immensely to see Mirabai return crying after a huge disappointment from the Rio Olympic Games, where she was considered a medal contender. Back in 2014, no one had foreseen that she would witness a hope splitting failure in Rio.

She had progressed to Rio after propelling in the national narrative as the medal winner at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. She won silver. She qualified for the Rio Olympic Games. She failed, and it impacted her mental strengths. However, the flip in performance would start trickling with much sweat just the following year and consistently.

Mirabai Chanu won India's first weightlifting medal at the 2017 World Championship in the USA—a gold. In 2018, she won the gold at the CWG Games. Karnam Malleswari herself had appreciated Chanu most generously for her skill, confidence, poise and performance.

Malleswari had said back then that Mirabai Chanu's confidence will see her turning over a good result at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. It played out just as Malleswari had seen it back in 2018.

The outcome of her training on the Manipur soil would begin to show in 2012 at the Junior Asian Weightlifting Championship. Behind her glueing to the sport and her own skill and talent, was an inspiration emanating from the soil of Manipur—Kunjarani Devi. She is the iconic weightlifter, the most decorated woman weightlifter—medals won at the Asian Games and the World Championships—who shaped Chanu until the lasting of an arduous chapter.

She also played a role in making Chanu look towards weight lifting from the initial attraction of archery at the very beginning of Chanu's journey in training. Chanu won a medal at the Olympic Games—a feat that would somehow remain drifted from Kunjarani Devi during her days as the ace Indian weightlifter. Kunjarani Devi was her first inspiration.

Chanu dearly addresses boxer Mary Kom, another inspiration from Manipur, as "Mary didi". She believes that it is because of the hard work of the youth in Manipur that the state performs outstandingly across disciplines at several international sports arenas.

She told this author that one reason why Manipur is doing well in sports is that aspiring players get inspired by each other, and they try to soak and emulate the passion for sports, "dekh dekh ke" (by looking at each other) and hence comes success.

On 30 July, boxer Lovlina Borgohain who hails from Assam, entered the semi-final—ensuring a medal for India. Between these two milestones at Tokyo, Chanu and her medal remained the only entry to India's tally. Manipur CM Singh walked Chanu to her new office and desk that now define added responsibility and representation of the state for her. Singh had earlier announced that Chanu would be appointed as additional superintendent of police (sports). It's a special post created for Chanu.

Singh has himself been on the front foot in his communication with Manipur's daughter. This video call between Chanu and Singh established how he wants to shape the honouring of the sportsperson who has won a medal for India at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

With her triumph at the podium came other small joys that attract public memory. In Chanu's case, the small set of trinkets, such as—her craving for pizza after winning the medal. Pizza is sort of a luxury for sportspersons and not exactly a healthy one. So, part of her warm welcome in Delhi was pizza served and shared with Union Minister of Law and Justice Kiren Rijuju (formerly sports minister).

She told this author that she wants to give back Manipur a part of what she has soaked, imbibed and mastered through weightlifting. "I have not yet thought about coaching, but whatever I know and have learned, I would like to share with the youth in the coming years and teach them about it."

Chanu has woven her own story of hope and victory at the Tokyo Olympics. She is fond of the storytelling that unfolds in the Manipuri folk arts. How much of Thang Ta (Manipuri martial art) did she watch with her siblings? I asked. A lot of Thang Ta. "Wo main zyada dekhti hoon, Thang Ta purane se ho kar aa rahi hai Maharani-Maharaja ke time se. Wo hamare sabse famous sport rahi hai. Thang Ta ke andar bahut see kahani hoti hai."

There are many stories within the story of Mirabai Chanu that will spread the aroma on Manipur soil and that of the North East—beginning now. Weightlifting and Thang Ta would widen her imagination of those.

Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi 

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