HT Brunch Cover Story: Strong like her
It’s easy to talk to Mirabai Chanu. The soft-spoken 27-year-old makes her way across each word with deliberation, weighing each one carefully (the irony, by the way, is not lost). Her conversation is charming in its simplicity, and it is humbling to see and understand how a simple village life has honed the Manipuri sportswoman’s stellar focus that won her a silver medal at the Olympics in Tokyo, last year.
Bereft of fripperies, her repartee is refreshingly urban and addresses issues most sportspeople probably wouldn’t open up about: From period pains, to establishing the importance of a psychologist in her training routine, Chanu is as frank, unfettered, and open as they come.
“When the medals come, then the country applauds us,” she says. “But the journey before that is known and supported only by our gurus, our families and our close friends. The country needs to know what we have faced, the problems and the smaller triumphs, especially for women in this category,” she says, gently adding how she has often heard that weightlifting is only for men in India.
Chanu dismisses such base opinions as lightly as she lifts a two-kg dumbbell.
“Our bodies may change when we train, but that is true for any sport and the person doing it,” she says. “The sport comes first. We shouldn’t heed what outsiders are saying in the negative when we’re trying to do our country proud.”
Chanu’s practicality and strength comes from her mother, Saikhom Ongbi Tombi Leima, who has not just played her mentor, coach and “psychologist,” but also plays football in her spare time with other women in Chanu’s Manipur village.
“She even scored a goal once,” exclaims Chanu delightedly, explaining that her entire family is immersed in sports. Her brothers play football in the smaller Manipuri clubs, and her father and sisters are ardent football fans. This is why she was always encouraged to participate in any sport. Such a thing is a rarity for Indian women, she admits.
Initially vested in archery, and confused about the sport she should adopt, a much younger Chanu came across renowned weightlifting champion Kunjarani Devi’s stories in her sixth-grade books. She showed them to her mother, who put these stories together with Chanu’s ability to lift huge piles of wood, and encouraged her to begin weightlifting.
“My mother offered me only one piece of advice—whatever you take up, give it everything and don’t look back,” says Chanu. “She was also honest and never over-promised anything. She admitted that she would not be able to feed me all the time or afford the things I needed, but she would always be there. Mujhe inke words se shakti mili.” (I found strength in her words.)
Even with her family’s support, Chanu was quick to understand the necessity of a psychologist as part of her training process, in a country where the concept of mental health is still brushed under the carpet.
“The lowest point in my entire life was not my failing in Rio (the 2016 Olympics), but a back injury I faced in 2018, in the Commonwealth Games,” says Chanu. On bed-rest for five months, she claims she was inundated by dark thoughts and almost gave up on weightlifting.
“I had nothing to distract me and coping was hard. That was when my psychologist taught me to focus my mind and leave the pain behind,” she says.
She laughs. “Some of the things they say seem repetitive, not unlike weightlifting. I had to tell myself that I was the only one who could win the battle against my pain. But, by repeating positive things to myself every day, I was willing my mind to gear my body for therapy and subsequently training. It worked!”
Mind over matter is what got Chanu her well-deserved silver medal at Tokyo this year, but it wasn’t without its challenges. “Not only was I under a lot of mental pressure, but my periods were also going to start. My coach and I had been tracking my period cycles and a day before my competition, our worst fears came true as main down ho gayi.”
Her coach, Vijay Sharma, was so unnerved by this that Chanu temporarily had to become his coach, to calm him down. “I told him it was nothing. But it wasn’t nothing, I was in great pain,” she giggles disarmingly. “But I put all my focus on my training, my work and didn’t let negative thoughts enter my mind even for a second.”
Like most sportspeople who hail from India’s smaller villages, Chanu’s life has been tough but simple. In a way, that stood her in good stead, probably much better than big city life may have worked for her sport.
“I used to walk large distances to collect and carry heavy piles of wood and water,” she says. “Even my brothers couldn’t understand how I’d carry such big bundles.”
Her toughness was further exemplified when she decided to travel the 25-odd kilometres to the Khuman Lampak sports complex in Imphal from her village, by hitching lifts with truck drivers.
“I was terrified and so was my mother, but the need to succeed was greater,” she explains. When she returned from Tokyo with her medal, she tracked down and distributed gifts to the drivers who had helped her.
She intersperses our conversation with delectable tidbits about her life and personality. Chanu loves to sing and dance, especially Manipuri folk dances, and promises she will exhibit some soon on her social media account.
However, her final pearls of wisdom, even at such a young age, are especially beguiling: “There will be times when your body will not listen to you. It will have good days and bad days when you are tempted to sit around and do nothing. That happens to all of us! But we don’t need to be so harsh on ourselves,” she says. “Mere pas kal hai, kal ke liye training ki tayaari karti hoon. I will be ready for what tomorrow brings, so my mind is relieved of useless, negative questions and instead prepares me to greet the next day without pressure and with positivity.”
From HT Brunch, January 9, 2022
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