Mary Kom won gold in 46 kg category of the 4th World Women's Boxing Championship. Image Credit: Getty Images

Dubai: India’s 2014 Asian Games gold medal-winning flyweight MC Mary Kom has vowed to add age to the growing list of obstacles she’s overcome, as she bids to win an elusive Olympic gold medal at Rio 2016, when she will be aged 33.

The 31-year-old mother of three from Manipur has already beaten poverty, racism and sexism to get this far — making her a cult hero in her native north east — but the issue of her advancing years is the latest perceived hurdle as she hones in on Brazil.

“There are already remarks on my age and the arrival of younger boxers,” the five-time World Amateur Boxing Champion said in an exclusive interview with Gulf News. “But this will not affect me. I’m not thinking about proving people wrong but rather working hard to make my dreams come true.

Arguably Kom’s greatest challenge was escaping childhood poverty, where her parents worked in the jhum fields, slashing and burning forest vegetation to make way for agriculture in her forgotten homeland, as documented in her 2013 autobiography ‘Unbreakable’, and the eponymous 2014 Bollywood biopic, where she is played by actress Priyanka Chopra.

“I wanted to be successful and bring a change to the family by ending their suffering,” the London 2012 Olympic bronze medallist said of her drive to succeed. “It was less of wanting to prove people wrong and more of needing to prove myself right. Outside pressure was never that important to me.

Overcoming challenges

“I know challenges, like being doubted or ignored, will never end and I still have them in different forms. But I have always been confident and never discouraged by those voices. That’s perhaps why I am here today, and by god’s grace and blessings I am fit and able to achieve something that for many is just a dream.”

Her latest achievement, bouncing back from the birth of her third child Prince to win gold at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, last September, marked a career gone full circle, not least because it was watching Dingko Singh win bantamweight gold at the 1998 Asian Games that inspired her to take up boxing aged 15.

“I believe in spiritual beings and divine interventions,” she said, when asked if her equalling of Dingko’s feat 16 years on was meant to be. “But, unless we work on it, things don’t just happen. We partly design our fate. Asian Games gold saw my comeback after the birth of my third son pay off. It has added confidence and motivated me more and I am now longing for greater heights.

“As a boxer, Olympic gold is all that’s left, but I still have a bigger dream to make more Mary Koms after I retire.”

Thanks to the prejudices she’s tackled head on, as a female boxer, Kom now believes the next generation will find it easier to make their mark.

“Things are changing,” she said. “Women’s sports have occupied a greater space in India now. The outlook of sport has changed. It is now one of the best career avenues.

“My dream is for a female Indian boxer to reach the next level, with free and fair screening, qualified coaches, better development from grass roots level and improved infrastructure.”

Nationwide scheme

The Mary Kom Foundation aims to achieve that in the north east of India, but Kom hopes to take the scheme nationwide. “Our focus is on underprivileged youth from far flung areas. We will avail world class facilities and training. We will slowly expand nationwide but the main focus will be to remain here in my state so that I have close contact and can contribute to it. Our end goal is to shape the lives and careers of the young and underprivileged, and produce excellent boxers capable of winning Olympic medals and bringing glory to the country.”

At a time when India witnesses great inroads toward gender equality, offset by reports of sexual violence, Kom remains humble on her own contribution toward societal change.

“It is important to have role models, but there have been enough outstanding female achievers already and there has already been a huge revolution in society,” she said. “The existing gender inequality in society is not based on the achievements of women, but on the old inherited mindsets, which will take time to overcome.”

Even as a family, with Kom’s husband Onler acting as a house-husband to look after their three children while his wife trains, the Koms are questioning societal norms.

“We are putting it again fresh into the minds of those who are still chained to the primitive ideologies,” she adds.

Motherly instincts

“I have wanted to quit and even tried many times, not because I doubt my performance or I’m scared of losing, but because of the price I have paid by leaving my family behind during month-long training camps and competitions. These are feelings every mother would have.”

Asked if she would turn to politics to further address perceived injustices in her isolated region, she replied: “After the Rio Olympics, I will concentrate fully on my boxing foundation and my family. I am not interested in politics. I feel that we [in the north east] are now being noticed not only by our politicians but by our fellow Indians too. I am positive that we will be given attention in all aspects.”

And of her Bollywood biopic, which is banned from being screened in her state after an insurgency to bring about autonomy there, she added: “It was good. Most of the scenes are an accurate account, but of course there were exaggerations and dramas to make the movie even more interesting.

“I wasn’t happy with what happened because I really wanted the film to be shot and screened in my own state. But situations were such that I couldn’t do anything. People have their own ideologies and reasons, which I cannot change or help. But I don’t find my region unique from the rest of India in this aspect.”