Demure, diminutive and determined, Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, all of 26 years old, is undoubtedly the toast of the nation after creating history as India’s first weightlifter to win an Olympic silver medal. The Manipuri girl, who is basking in the glory of securing an honourable spot in the Women’s 49 kg category at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, especially after her disappointing turn at the 2016 Rio Olympics, embodies the spirit of every girl who has learnt, or wants to learn the art of rising from the ashes like a phoenix.
In a freewheeling chat with Health Shots, Mirabai talks about feeling endless love, having a strong support system, how she keeps her mental health in check, her self-determination and chasing bigger, better goals always.
It was already an emotional moment when Mirabai returned to her village Nongpok Kakching in Manipur and met her family after 2 years. But this time, it was extra special.
“I am getting a lot of love and blessings from people from all over. The warm welcome has been overwhelming. I haven’t even had a chance to sit down and talk to my family members. I had not come home for 2 years. Now that I have returned after achieving something, my family is happier and proud. And it has made me feel really good too,” says the star athlete.
At home, she has been devouring homemade food – rice, veggies and curries – after getting her rare taste of pizza. If you wonder why it is rare, here’s why!
“All players have to maintain a basic health and fitness level. But during the competition we really have to maintain our diet because in weightlifting, the athlete’s weight is very important. We can’t afford to go off track. So I eat healthy things. We focus on consuming meat to stay healthy and strengthen muscles. I also consume milk, and avoid eating outside or junk food. Sometimes I also cook myself to ensure I am eating right to maintain the 49 kg on the weight scale,” Mirabai shares.
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While she comes from a humble background – her father was a government job and mother a housewife – the raring-to-go sportswoman credits her family for not just giving her the wings to fly, but for always also being the wind beneath her wings.
“My family has always motivated me. They never held me back from chasing what I wanted to do. I had set my goals at a very young age, and I had resolved to get a medal at a big competition like the Olympics. I always wanted to experience that thrill,” says Mirabai, adding that determination has been her constant driving force.
“Until I don’t achieve what I want to, I keep at it. I feel that if I can do something, I want to show that I can do it, come what may,” shares the youngest of six siblings.
In 2016, Mirabai got a chance to realise her dream of representing India at the Olympics for the first time. She couldn’t win a medal, but she didn’t dwell on the disappointment.
“I had worked very hard to get a medal during the Rio Olympics. It was my first experience at the Olympics and I think I got really nervous, and so I couldn’t take the medal. I was very sad, upset and disheartened. I also questioned myself if I should continue (in the sport). I was broken. But everyone around me, including my family members, explained how life would give me more chances. My coach motivated me by saying, ‘You can still do a lot and we should plan for the future’. That’s when I decided to recover from my disappointment quickly, work harder and focus on my shortcomings,” she tells Health Shots.
After facing failure in Rio, Mirabai also fielded injuries and physical ailments, but she went on to write many a success story. She secured a Gold medal at the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships, and went on to win the first gold medal for India in the 2018 Commonwealth Games. A year later, she scooped a gold medal at the 2020 Senior National Weightlifting Championships, and just months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, she won a bronze at the 2020 Asian Weightlifting Championships.
No wonder then that Bollywood’s Dabangg star Salman Khan referred to Mirabai on Twitter as ‘Asli Dabangg’ – truly fearless – a comment that she admits swooning over!
When she steps into the arena, Mirabai is used to lifting heavy weights. But guess what she doesn’t do? She doesn’t let the weight of expectations outweigh her resolve.
Recently, American gymnast Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympics and Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open citing mental health concerns, igniting the crucial but often ignored conversation around the need to give precedence to mind over medals – in not just sports, but in life too.
Mirabai says, “Mental health is very important. If on some days we don’t perform well, we often go into this pressure that we couldn’t make it, and we wonder why. But when it comes to me, I always think that ‘Aaj nahin hua toh kal mere paas hai’. I explain to myself that today may not be good, but I will make tomorrow better. Life always gives chances.”
She understands that every player or athlete has to handle immense pressure where they get scared and feel uncertain. That’s when she convinces herself by thinking, “I have picked up weights so many times during training, so it’s about doing it one more time and giving it my best. That way, I don’t crumble under pressure.”
Just a day before her competition in Tokyo, Mirabai’s periods came knocking unexpectedly, bringing bouts of cramps… because hello, anxiety can totally knock off your menstrual cycle, ladies! What did she do then?
Well, apart from planning a fresh strategy with her coach, she also coached him about taking a chill pill. “The tension was justified because I was going to compete at the biggest platform. But I told my Sir, ‘It is nothing, it will be fine’. We can’t stop the period from coming… it comes when on its own time. Overthinking about it adds to tension. The moment you tell yourself that this is a part and parcel of life, and it is nothing, you will only look ahead. Period ka kya hai, it keeps coming,” she says nonchalantly.
If at the Rio Olympics, badminton ace P.V. Sindhu and wrestler Sakshi Malik made India proud, this year, more girls including Mirabai, Sindhu and boxer Lovlina Borgohain have already clinched medals. Boxer MC Mary Kom put up a good fight, and the Indian women’s hockey team has reached the semi-finals. For Mirabai, who is only the second Indian woman to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting, since Karnam Malleswari’s bronze in the Sydney Games in 2000, the display of woman power is a reason to rejoice.
“Some people say, ‘Ladki kuch nahi kar sakti and sports mein medals nahin le sakti (Girls can’t do anything and can’t bring medals in sports) But we have proven that we can indulge in sports, represent our state and nation at big platforms, and make people proud. I personally feel very proud that I could bring back a medal for India,” says Mirabai, hoping that her journey teaches one important thing to girls that “Ladkiyaan chaahe toh kuch bhi kar sakti hain (if girls want, they can move mountains), for their country, for their family or for themselves”.
And while Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s congratulatory message to Mirabai read, “Her success motivates every Indian”, she also hopes that more Indian women get encouraged through her own journey, and make a move towards sports, train hard, and take weightlifting to greater heights — just as she was when she learnt of Indian weightlifting champion Kunjarani Devi.
Ask Mirabai about this perception and comment that women often face, and she breaks into laughter. “No it’s nothing like that…. and there’s nothing about muscles that won’t make a person look good! Muscle and fitness is important. Weightlifting doesn’t mean spoiling your body. And for those who want to take it up professionally, they should only think about making their family and country proud. And in life, don’t listen to naysayers. Do what you like doing.”
Following Mirabai’s Olympic achievement, Bollywood actor-supermodel Milind Soman’s wife Ankita Konwar on racism against people from the Northeast, sparked a discussion. when she tweeted, “If you’re from Northeast India, you can become an Indian ONLY when you win a medal for the country. Otherwise we are known as ‘chinky’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Nepali’ or a new addition ‘corona’. India is not just infested with casteism but racism too. Speaking from my experience.”
But what about Mirabai’s experience? The athlete tells us, “I have heard that racism happens, but it has not happened with me. So far, I have not faced a problem.” Steering attention to how several sportspersons have emerged from her state, she adds, ‘In Manipur, people, especially girls, love indulging in sports and they work very hard on it.”
“I will start training again soon. I have only 3 years left. (before the next Olympics in 2024). I have very little time left, and time is flying. Before that, there are Commonwealth Games, Asian Games… and I have to prepare well for all these events.” And why not? After getting a taste of silver, like a true sportsperson, she has her eyes set on gold!