Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu won India a silver medal in weightlifting on the first day of the Tokyo Olympics 2020 games.
It has been a long journey for the young athlete from Manipur who wanted to give up the sport after the fiasco at the Rio games.
In an interview with Jyotsna Mohan, she talks of how she picked up the pieces and what it took to reach the top - the sacrifices, a salad only diet for years and the ultimate joy.
Q: Mirabai, congratulations on your big victory and the silver medal. What was going on in your mind at that moment when history was in the making?
When my silver medal was confirmed I was so happy, but it also felt like I was in a dream. For my last lift, the first silver medal in the Olympics for India was already confirmed. It was a big achievement and it had been a dream for both my coach and me and we had made it possible.
I can’t tell you how happy I am. My family hadn’t eaten anything since the morning. They hadn’t even had water while my competition was on and were just praying and sitting. After the medal, people from the village came home and my mother made fish for them.
Q: What was the first thing you ate after the medal?
The first thing I did after the win yesterday was to attack a pizza. I had more pizza for breakfast also. Since I started participating in international competitions, I have been maintaining a diet because I have to maintain my weight and since I compete in the 49kg category I have to diet and not eat any junk food. There were many things that I wanted to eat but I kept them on the side and trained.
Q: How long has it been since you met your family?
I went for five days in October 2019, otherwise for a proper visit it has been 5 years. Now I will go home, and I should go home.
Q: After the poor show in Rio, was there a moment when you wanted to give up weightlifting and just quit?
After Rio all my dreams were broken, it was my first Olympics and I had really worked hard for it and had changed a lot. After all that effort and not getting a medal, I was so upset that I didn’t feel like eating or doing anything for many days. I was broken.
My coach and others encouraged me to get back to training and finally I listened to them and made changes to my training.
Q: What changes did you make that even before the Olympics started, people were convinced you will win a medal?
There were many changes in my journey, and I had to face a lot of injuries. Technique and training were changed, and my weight improved. After Rio my immediate focus was the World championship which I won.
Q: When you were in America, and you have been there for a long time you have had to compromise a lot as has your coach who I believe was making your food?
My coach has supported me a lot, outside food was not allowed and more so in Covid we could not take a risk and go and eat outside. It felt so nice with all this teamwork and I don’t think anyone has received the kind of support I have got. Everything that happened with me was very nice.
Q: It has been a collective sacrifice - you, your family, your coach. What episode really stands out for you?
2017 was my sister’s wedding and the world championship was the same time, and I couldn’t attend it. I have hardly attended anything at home with the family since I am away training, but I surprised my sister by becoming the world champion and gave her the medal and that was a sacrifice but at the end for my mother and for my country I have won a medal. That is bigger.
Q: Your win comes years after Karnam Malleswari’s 2000 bronze medal win at Sydney. Since then, a lot of water has flown under the bridge and there have been many doping scandals that engulfed the sport. Do you think your win will give the sport the image makeover that is long overdue - a good player has won it the right way?
A lot of young people are entering sports and many girls are coming into sport and they will see that if I can win a medal then why can’t they.
I want to say that more and more girls should join weightlifting and come and train with me and help me spread India’s pride together and I will be very happy especially if girls join the sport.
But for this the support of the family is very important. A lot of families keep their girls at home or insist that they have, to only study. They should forget that and support their daughters in whatever they want to do.
Q: When we talk of the North-East, do you feel that at times like this when someone wins from there or becomes famous then the rest of the country welcomes them and at other times it stays disconnected. I am talking about inclusion, and I feel that sports people like you or Baichung Bhutia among others help in connecting the country?
Even now so many people don’t know about the North-East, especially about my Manipur. We are also in India, and we think then why do people talk like this? It doesn’t feel nice but now Manipur is becoming popular in sports, and we will continue the excellence and showcase what the state is about.
Because of Mary Kom a lot of people have started recognising Manipur and that is a good thing and hopefully soon people will know what state it is and what happens there - we are trying our best to show that.