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India's Powerpuff Girl

Mirabai Chanu created history by winning a silver medal in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But it’s the story that’s behind that win is what’s most compelling

Not so long ago, a girl in her early teens would wait for the trucks in the market square of Nongpok Kakching, one of the remotest villages in Manipur for a ride to the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal, some 30 kms from her village.

That’s how Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, one of the only two Indian women to win an Olympic silver medal (the other being PV Sindhu), said she would like to start her life story. 

Hailing from a state which has very limited resources and means, dreams and nightmares are inextricably linked. Only a very few have managed to translate their dreams into reality. Mirabai’s journey is one such story of grit and determination.

“I have endured such hardships early in my life that I often wonder about life itself. But I’m fortunate,” Mirabai says with a smile.

The 27-year-old took the world by storm when she heaved a combined weight of 119 kg at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, sending a billion Indians into frenzy. Already a Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour, her win earned her the Khel Ratna award.

Born into a family of six siblings, childhood was no fun for Mirabai. Yet, she pursued her dreams, sacrificing the little joys she had during her journey. No wonder, when she coyly mentioned ‘pizza’ after winning the silver medal in Tokyo, it became a national topic, with many wondering what sacrifices a weightlifter has to make en route to the Olympic podium.

But what’s striking most about Mirabai is her humility.

She never forgot those who played an instrumental role in shaping her into a sportsperson that she is today. After her Olympic win, she honoured the truck drivers who provided her free trips from her home to the training centre in Imphal during her early days. Pictures of her in tears while handing over the gifts to the drivers went viral in no time.

“Directly or indirectly, they helped shape my career. If they hadn’t helped me, I might not have been where I am today,” Mirabai says. Her gesture won her more hearts. Industrialist Anand Mahindra proudly wrote in one of his tweets: “As far as I’m concerned, this gesture of @mirabai_chanu makes her a Gold medallist. My eyes moistened seeing her touch their (truck drivers’) feet. One of the most graceful gestures in our country…”

Mirabai’s eyes are now set on winning gold in Paris in 2024. “I am really happy with the Tokyo medal, but I have this firm belief that I can convert that silver into gold with better training and sacrifices,” she says with a hint determination. And the diminutive Manipuri is leaving no stone unturned in her bid to chase that elusive dream. In the 2016 Rio Games, she failed to register a single valid lift and that left a deep scar. But like the proverbial phoenix that rises from its ashes, Mirabai emerged as one of the best lifters in the world.

She has no time to rest. After the Tokyo Olympics, she had a grand tour of the country and caught up with her family, but she is now confined to the National Institute of Sports (NIS) in Patiala, preparing to take on the world again. Talking about her preparations, Mirabai said that her immediate focus will be to perform well in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games and the Hangzhou Asiad, next year.

Mirabai is already a two-time medallist in the Commonwealth Games, winning a silver in 2014 Glasgow and a gold with a new national record in 2018 Gold Coast. But Asian Games remains uncharted waters for Mirabai, and she wants to enter the competition in prime physical condition.

“My struggle continues. I can’t afford to rest,” she says.

She also sees a bright future for weightlifting in India. “Children often ask me about weightlifting. Unlike other sports, weightlifting requires very good diet and discipline. Wanting to lift the weights is only the beginning. Hopefully, India will have many more champion weightlifters in the future,” she says.

Mirabai seems undeterred by the fame and recognition that she enjoys today. In her words, “I want to remain the simple village girl I have always been.”