Tokyo 2020: Lovlina Borgohain - Ruling the ring, after running around in circles
Lovlina Borgohain let out a scream so loud it cut through the empty Kokugikan Arena, and hung there for a while, ricocheting off the high-domed ceiling of the revered home of Sumo wrestling.
She had just assured India of a second medal at the Olympics -- after weightlifter Mirabai Chanu’s silver on the first day -- beating an opponent she had lost to three times in three matches before this one, to move into the semi-finals of the 69kg (welterweight) in women’s boxing.
Both losing semi-finalists get bronze medals in Olympic boxing, but Borgohain has the chance to do something no other Indian boxer has done in an Olympic ring — fight in the final. And she said after the bout that she was gunning for history.
“I would talk about my journey, but not today. I have the gold to win,” Borgohain said. “There is only one medal and that is gold, that is what we compete for.”
There was more to cheer on Friday as PV Sindhu pulled off a clinical straight-games quarter-final win over her long-time rival Akane Yamaguchi of Japan to take a step closer to a medal.
The success of these women fits with an important gender shift in the country’s sporting culture. Sakshi Malik (bronze) and Sindhu (silver) were India’s only medallists at Rio 2016, and Dipa Karmakar’s brave finish just off the podium in gymnastics was the other major highlight.
Borgohain, 23, did just enough in her Olympic debut bout on Tuesday for a split decision, but in the quarter-final against Chen Nien-chin from Chinese Taipei, the 2018 world champion she was in control for the full three rounds.
The lanky boxer from Assam controlled the range with her stiff jab and some nimble footwork.
When Chen did find a way in, she was met with a solid left hook to the head. But Borgohain’s best was yet to come. In Round 2, Chen, having lost the first, grew more and more desperate with Borgohain’s control of the ring. Her attacks became more reckless and Borgohain, unfazed and perfectly poised, took full advantage. The round went unanimously in Borgohain’s favour.
Between the rounds, coach Raffaele Bergamasco, furiously fanning her with a towel, said: “The whole of India and Assam are watching. You have the opportunity to create history.”
In Round 3, still dictating the movement in the ring, still using her quick jab and hook combination, Borgohain did just that. After Vijender Singh’s in 2008 and Mary Kom’s in 2012, India will have another Olympic boxing medal.
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“I have been working hard for eight years, so I thought I will have to show that hard work. I just wanted to be aggressive from the start,” said Borgohain, sporting a traditional gamosa around her neck after the fight.
Borgohain’s path to Tokyo has been hard. Last year, after almost seven months without training or competition because of the pandemic, she tested positive for Covid-19 on the day the Indian boxing squad flew out to Italy for a prolonged training and competition trip in October. Left behind in New Delhi, Borgohain had to be hospitalised for a few days.
“She has been very strong mentally. We had to work on her strength and conditioning after Covid and it took a couple of months. She was very dedicated,” said Bergamasco.
In December and January, while the rest of the elite women boxers trained as a team, Borgohain worked on her fitness at the Inspire Institute of Sports in Ballari, Karnataka. By the end of January she felt ready to get back into the ring, but there was bad news from home—both her mother’s kidneys were failing. In February, Borgohain made a two-day trip to Kolkata to be with her mother, who was undergoing a kidney transplant there.
In her first tournament after this period of chaos, the Boxam International invitational in Spain, she lost in the very first round. By May, the two-time world championship bronze medallist was back in the flow, winning a bronze in the Asian Championships in Doha.
Borgohain comes from a village called Baromukhia, near Assam’s border with Nagaland. Her father owns a small tea plantation and she has two older sisters, Lima and Licha, (one is in the CISF the other with the BSF). Growing up, Borgohain was fascinated by Lima and Licha training in Muay Thai. When she was old enough, Borgohain started training in the martial art too.
In 2012, Sports Authority of India boxing coach Padum Boro was scouting for new recruits because he did not have enough boxers to represent Assam in the upcoming sub-junior nationals. He saw Borgohain in action in her school. Impressed by her height and her skills, Boro convinced her to join the SAI boxing programme in Guwahati.
“I was told by the coach, just don’t use the kick, and throw as many punches as possible,” Borgohain had told HT in an earlier interview. She went on to win gold in the nationals with just a few months of training.
In her Olympic semi-final on August 4, Borgohain will run into world champion Busenaz Surmeneli, who she has never fought before.
“I thought I will play it easy, whatever the situation I will handle,” Borgohain said about her quarterfinal fight. “I used to think too much about it.”
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