Five years ago, at the Rio Olympics, Chanu Saikhom Mirabai could not record even a single valid lift in the clean and jerk round. She broke down, depression seeped in. But even in that state, the Meitei community girl from Manipur did one thing right. She didn’t give up.
Mirabai defeated depression, battled through injury and today, did what she couldn’t in Rio — winning an Olympic medal for the country, the first for India at Tokyo 2020.
Mirabai ended the snatch round with a best valid lift of 87kg. In the clean and jerk, she declared her first lift to be 110 kg. With a C&J world record of 119 kg in her name, it was more likely that Mira would do it. But it still had to be done. She climbed up the stage, looking calm as ever, and got all three green lights, before loosening her grip on the iron bar. It virtually confirmed her silver.
She bettered her C&J score with 115 kg in her next attempt and went on to add two more kilos to her final attempt of 117 kg but failed to register a clean lift. Her combined weight total was 202 kg, 8 kg behind the gold medallist.
Silver it was for Mirabai, as China’s Zhihui Hou clinched gold with a new Olympic Record combined weight of 210 kg. Bronze went to Cantika Aisah of Indonesia for lifting a combined weight of 194 kg.
“It’s really a dream come true for me. I would like to dedicate this medal to my country and would like to thank a billion prayers of all Indians, which were with me during this journey,” said Mira after standing second on the podium and giving India its 29th Olympic medal overall.
She is the only Indian after Karnam Malleswari (bronze, Sydney 2000) to win an Olympic medal for India in weightlifting.
“I would like to thank my family, especially my mother for her sacrifices and for believing in me. Also special thanks to our government for supporting me — Ministry of Sports, Sports Authority of India, Indian Olympic Association, Weightlifting Federation of India, Railways, Olympic Gold Quest, sponsors and my marketing agency IOS for their continuous support.”
Mirabai Saikhom Chanu’s preparations
Months before the rescheduled Tokyo Games, Mira was sent to the US to work on her back, under the care of former American weightlifter-turned-physiotherapist Dr Aaron Horschig.
“I would like to give special thanks to my coach Vijay Sharma sir and the support staff for their continuous hard work, motivation and training.” she further said.
Sharma, her long-time coach, was equally elated, especially looking back during the lockdown phase that had left Mirabai without practice and locked inside her room at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala.
“Her fighting spirit is unbelievable. Despite facing injury for some time, she made a strong comeback,” said Sharma. “I have been working with her for the last eight years and I always loved her dedication towards the sports, which encourages the coach and staff to work hard,” Sharma said after the silver medal had been won in Tokyo.
“I am really proud of my student Mira. This medal is a result of her dedication, hard work and passion. It’s a proud moment for me and the entire nation that we have won a silver medal for our country,” he added.
It was Sharma who took the decision to fly Mirabai to the USA and get her assessed by Dr Horschig. “This is not the end. We will continue to work hard and bring more laurels for our nation,” the coach concluded.
In a recent interview, 2000 Sydney Olympics bronze medallist Karnam Malleswari had said that Mirabai had improved a lot since her outing in the Rio Games five years ago and that she was confident Mira would return from Tokyo with a medal. Prophetic words that were proven true on Saturday in Tokyo.
Mirabai Chanu’s mother Saikhom Ongbi Tombi Leima and father Saikhom Kriti Meitei could not hold back their tears seeing their daughter give India their first medal in the Tokyo Olympics on Saturday. Mirabai won a silver medal – her first in the Games – in the weightlifting women’s 49 kg category.
“I was in tears seeing it and also at the moment when she won the medal. Her father (Saikhom Kriti Meitei) was also in tears. Tears of joy,” Leima said. “All her hard work has led to the success,” she exclaimed.
The Chanu household at Nongpok Kakching village, around 25km from state capital Imphal, visitors had been trickling in since Friday despite the curfew caused in part by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Mirabai has six siblings, three sisters and two brothers.
“She had told us she will win gold or at least a medal. So, everybody was waiting for it to happen. Many of our relatives who lived far came last evening. They stayed overnight with us,” Mirabai’s mother said. “Many came this morning and the people of the locality also thronged. So, we have brought out the television to the verandah and around 50 people were there to watch Mirabai in Tokyo. Many sat at the front courtyard. So, it was a kind of festival.
“A lot of journalists have also come. This is something we have never experienced.” Mirabai was on a video call from the weightlifting arena in Tokyo before her event began and she had sought blessings from her parents.
“She (Mirabai) rarely comes home (because of training) and so we have made a WhatsApp group to communicate with each other,” said the Olympic silver medallist’s cousin Aroshini. “This morning, she had a video call with all of us and she bowed down and sought blessings from her parents.
“She said, ‘Bless me to win a gold medal for the country.’ They gave their blessings. It was a touching moment.”
Chanu belongs to indigenous Hindu tribe of Manipur
The Meitei community of Manipur are ancient indigenous people native to the state, most of whom did not convert to Christianity. The Olympic silver medallist is a devotee of Hanuman.
The Meitei primarily settled in the Imphal Valley region in modern-day Manipur, although a sizable population have settled in Assam, Tripura, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram, with a notable presence in the neighbouring countries of Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Meitei ethnic group represents about 53% of Manipur’s population.
According to the 2011 census, Meiteis follow only two religions, with an overwhelming majority of Meiteis practising variants of Hinduism. Around 14% of Meiteis traditionally follow the Sanamahi faith named after god Sanamahi.
Meiteis follow both Hindu and Sanamahi religious traditions and rituals. For example, they worship Sanamahi in the southwest corners of their homes. The various types of festivals that are the most significant, and are celebrated with great joy by Meiteis are Rasalila, Janmashtami, Holi, Lai Haraoba, Cheiraoba, Yaosang, Jagannath Rath Yatra, Holi, Diwali, Ram Navami etc.