When frailty and feebleness are still seen as traits associated with women and femininity, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, the Indian weightlifter, has broken barriers and stereotypes and proven through her persistence the value of hard work and dedication.
Mirabai Chanu was born on the 8th of August 1994 in Nongpok kakching, a small village around Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur. She is one of the six siblings born to two loving and supportive parents. Chanu was an eager and sensitive child who never shied away from extending any kind of support she could to her parents.
When she was as young as five years old, she would lift buckets of water on her head and assist her mother in carrying out the household chores. Her extraordinary ability and flair for weightlifting were recognised much early in her life. When she was around 12 years old, she was able to carry a huge bundle of firewood on her head while her brother struggled to even pick them up.
The making of Mirabai Chanu
Mirabai Chanu’s initial training ground was her home. But soon, Mirabai Chanu decided to pursue her desire of being a sportswoman seriously. The chore-driven training technique was soon abandoned for more formal training.
Interestingly, it was not weightlifting that was Mirabai Chanu’s first choice. She was, in fact, fascinated by archery. However, on the day she visited the training centre, the archery section was closed. Right beside it was the weightlifting centre which grabbed her attention, and she decided to try her hands on it. Further impetus came she watched Kunjari Devi’s documentary, whom she soon began to idolise.
Consequently, she joined the Khuman Lampak Sports Complex in Imphal in 2007. This was a challenging phase for Chanu. She had to travel 22-25 km every day from her village to the training centre early in the morning. In the beginning, she would ride a cycle to reach her destination, but later she was greatly helped by truck drivers on the way.
Travelling was not the sole obstacle. Mirabai Chanu was from an economically weak background. Her mother had a small shop where she sold tea, and her father was in a low-paying government job. Mirabai Chanu found it difficult to follow the diet that was prescribed. She could afford to have eggs and milk only once or twice a week. There were times when she satisfied her hunger with only water and attended intense training sessions.
The emergence of a dedicated sportswoman
Under the guidance of Anita Chanu, Mirabai Chanu’s big break came in 2009 when she won a Gold medal at the State level in the sub-junior category. Her first national medal came in 2011 when she won in the Junior Nationals.
After joining the national team, Mirabai Chanu began her training under Kunjarani Devi. In 2011, she proved her potential at the International level by winning her first International Gold medal at the South Asian Youth Games. The same year she received another Gold medal at the International Youth Championship.
Two years later, she participated in the Women’s Junior National Championships and bagged the Junior National title by lifting 170 kg (75 kg Snatch and 95 kg Clean & Jerk). In 2014, she won a Silver medal in the 48 kg category in Glasgow, Scotland, at the Commonwealth Games. Another Gold medal came her way when she lifted 169 kg at the South Asian Games in 2016.
Persistence is the key
The Rio Olympics was a much-awaited event in Mirabai Chanu’s life. She had prepared herself tirelessly for her debut. Her training had been so intense that she had even missed her sister’s wedding. Her phone was taken away, and she had to spend all her time focusing on the art. However, on the big day, she turned so nervous that she could not lift the weight even once in the clean and jerk section. She, unfortunately, received a DNF or Did Not Finish.
The defeat may have crushed Mirabai Chanu initially, but it also became one of her biggest inspirations in life. She swore to emerge from it and realise her dreams through more rigorous practice.
Success came her way soon in 2017 when she became the first Indian in 22 years to win a medal in the World Weightlifting Championships. The event was held in Anaheim, California. Mirabai Chanu became the proud recipient of a Gold medal by lifting 194 kg in total. 1n 2018, she won a Gold medal in the Commonwealth Games.
Unfortunately, the same year Mirabai Chanu suffered a lower back injury. This was again a tough phase for the sportswoman. She had to be on complete bed rest for four months. She had lost all hopes of returning to weightlifting. However, she was supported and motivated by her close ones. They inspired her to regain her lost will and confidence.
Setting new records
Mirabai Chanu participated at the World Championships in Thailand, where she registered her best record of 201 kg (87 Snatch and 114 Clean & Jerk). Her own record was broken in a short span of four months when she bagged a Gold medal for lifting 203 kg (88 kg Snatch and 115 Kg Clean & Jerk) at the 2020 Senior National Weightlifting Championships. At the Asian Weightlifting Championships in 2021, Mirabai Chanu won a Bronze medal. However, she made a new world record of lifting 119 kg in the Clean and Jerk category.
Mirabai set new records at the Tokyo Olympics 2020 when she became the first Indian weightlifter to secure a Silver medal at the Olympics and the second Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic after Karnam Malleswari. By successfully lifting 115 kg in the Clean and Jerk division, she created a new record for the Olympics. Her most recent achievement includes a Gold medal for lifting 201 kg in the 49 kg Commonwealth Games 2022 held in Birmingham, England.
Mirabai Chanu — the inspiration
Mirabai Chanu is a source of inspiration for many in the country. Her consistent hard work, unwavering determination and indomitable spirit have made her the recipient of two of the most prestigious National honours — the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour of India and the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India. Her untiring devotion and unremitting resolve are going to motivate generations that are to come.
Featured image source: Deccan Herald