Mirabai Chanu: From carrying firewood to carrying the hopes of a nation

For Mirabai, lifting weights has been a way of supporting her family.
By Olympic Staff Writer

Saikhom Sanatomba Meitei was all of 16 when he ventured into the hills to collect firewood.

Hailing from a poor stratum of society in the town of Nongpok Kakching, about 20 kilometres from the city of Imphal in the state of Manipur, it was one of the means of livelihood for the family.

On one such trip, the teenager wasn't able to lift a bundle of firewood on his head. It was then his sister, just 12 at the time and the youngest among six siblings, managed to lift it with much ease and walked back home some two kilometres away.

Eight years later, that girl - Saikhom Mirabai Chanu - lifted a silver medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

When she was around five years old, Mirabai had been carrying a bucket of water over her head, negotiating the steep inclines of the hilly region. That routine, along with fetching firewood, eventually turned out to be the substructure of her career.

By the time she was 14 and inspired by female weightlifter Kunjarani Devi - a seven-time silver-medallist in the World Championships and a fellow Manipur native - Mirabai knew where her future lay.

From bamboo to medals

Bereft of any weightlifting infrastructure in her village, Mirabai eventually found herself under the tutelage of coach Anita Chanu, and would travel around 50 kilometres over hilly terrains daily for her training.

There, she used bamboo trunks as barbells to hone her technique and after six months switched to conventional tools.

Two years later, she made it to the national camp. Mirabai went on to clinch gold at the State level in the sub-junior category, and then followed it up with her first national medal in the junior category in 2011.

Soon after, she earned her national team call-up and eventually came under the guidance of her idol, Kunjarani.

After her run in the domestic circuit, Mirabai then got her opportunity at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, allowing her first taste of the international stage. Representing India in the women's 48kg category in Glasgow, the then 20-year-old weightlifter went on the clinch silver.

Bouncing from Rio

Expectations were high at the 2014 Asian Games held in Incheon, South Korea. She returned empty-handed, but Mirabai didn't let that disappointment linger on for long as she returned strong to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

The Olympic Games was, however, anything but satisfying as the Manipuri was unable to lift in any of her three attempts in the clean and jerk.

The failure affected the Indian in ways she didn't expect. The hostility back home was so severe that she contemplated quitting the sport for good. "I was really low after the Olympics. It took me a lot of time to get over the disappointment," she had said.

A year later, she once again showed what she was capable of.

At the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, USA, not much was expected from the Indian contingent.

But Mirabai lifted a championships record of 194kg (85kg snatch and 109kg clean and jerk) in the women's 48kg category to become only the second Indian after Sydney 2000 bronze medallist Karnam Malleswari to win a gold medal at the Worlds.

The world title not only helped prove her critics wrong but also made her a sporting sensation back home. Her achievement was duly recognised as the Indian government bestowed her with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the highest sporting honour in the country, and the Padma Shri, the fourth-highest civilian award, in 2018.

Another gold

Mirabai continued to build on her Worlds' triumph. She struck gold in the women's 49kg clean and jerk in the EGAT Cup international weightlifting championships, upstaging Rio Olympics' bronze medallist Miyake Hiromi.

Later that year, at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, she bagged another gold in the 48kg category. She then earned a bronze in the Asian Weightlifting Championships held in Ningbo, China in the 49kg-clean and jerk category in April this year.

Mirabai's journey has gone from collecting scraps of wood to precious metal; elevating the hopes of a nation along with it.