When Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, India’s lone entry in the weightlifting event at Tokyo Olympics, had failed to lift her first two chances of 85kg in snatch at the Asian championships in Tashkent, it revived a painful memory. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Mirabai failed in her first snatch attempt of 82kg. On her second attempt, she was able to lift 82kg before failing in the third attempt at 84kg. The horror show continued in clean and jerk where Mirabai failed in all three attempts.
The similarities between Rio and Tashkent ended when Mirabai, competing after a gap of one-and-a-half years, lifted 86kg in her final snatch attempt. Taking confidence from it, the 26-year-old lifted 113kg, 117kg and signed off with a world record of 119kg in clean and jerk. The total of 205kg, the highest total ever lifted by her, was good enough for the bronze medal.
It was also a deja vu of Mirabai’s performance at the 2019 national championships in Visakhapatnam. Back then, Mirabai had failed to lift in her first two attempts at the snatch. She succeeded in her last attempt at 83kg before registering 111kg in clean and jerk, taking gold. The latest version of Mirabai knows how to make a comeback from a do-or-die situation.
Born on August 8, 1994, in Nongpok Kakching, a village 44 kms away from Manipur’s capital Imphal, Mirabai’s innate strength to lift firewood with little hassle at 12 was noticed. Her first breakthrough event arrived in 2014 with a silver medal in 48kg at the Commonwealth Games. She created two new records in the trials at Patiala, getting past her idol, N Kunjarani Devi, by two kilograms. All went well till Rio happened.
Post Rio, a crestfallen Mirabai had to take help from a psychologist at SAI to get over the nightmare. She bounced back strongly with gold at the 2017 world championships in Anaheim, USA. 2018 saw her change the colour of the medal from silver to gold at the commonwealth games with a total lift of 196kg. The same year saw her getting conferred with Padma Shri and Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. A lower-back injury kept her out for the rest of the year as doctors struggled to diagnose what was causing her immense pain.
Year 2019 saw Mirabai return to the international fold at the EGAT’s cup international weightlifting championship. With 82kg in snatch and 110kg in clean and jerk, Mirabai’s total of 192kg led to the gold on her return to competition after a nine-month lay-off. In April, Mirabai had a fourth-place finish at the Asian championships in Ningbo, China with 86 kg in snatch and 113 kg in knee and jerk.
She clinched her second gold of the year at the commonwealth senior championships with a 191kg (84kg snatch + 107 kg clean and jerk). At the world championships in Pattaya, she set new national records at snatch (87kg) and clean & jerk (114kg) to lift 201kg. Crossing the 200kg mark for the first time in her career wasn’t enough for Mirabai to get a medal, as she finished fourth.
She ended the year with her third gold at the 6th Qatar international cup, a snatch of 83kg and clean and jerk of 111kg.
Mirabai again broke her record at the senior national championships in 2020 with 203kgs (88kgs in snatch and 115kg in clean & jerk). Her old nemesis, the lower back pain, came back to bother her when the pandemic forced lockdown. In October 2020, as the world opened up little, Mirabai hopped on a flight to the USA with her coach Vijay Sharma to consult Aaron Horschig, a national-level weightlifter-turned-physiotherapist in St Louis.
“I have seen a lot of improvement after working with him. He makes me do a lot of rehabilitation exercises, not just for my shoulder and back issues. It helped me focus on various movements,” she said in a media interaction in April.
Currently, she is training under Horschig till her departure to Tokyo.
Mirabai knows that if she has to have a shot at a medal, she can’t afford to fail a lift at Tokyo. In short, prevent history from repeating itself.