Rio 2016 Olympics: Weightlifter Mirabai Chanu sleepless in Patiala

She is a rarity in Indian sport- a world-class athlete who knows she can win an Olympic medal. Hailed by her mentor Kunjurani Devi as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ weightlifter, Chanu knows she has a chance at glory, but is also aware that even a minor error can prove costly. Jonathan Selvaraj on the lifter who can be India’s surprise medallist if she holds her nerves It was late Friday night and as Mirabai Chanu will recall later, she was unable to sleep. It’s not as if she wasn’t tired. She had spent six hours of the day in the weightlifting hall of the National Institute of Sport, Patiala, front squatting nearly three times her bodyweight. As she lay on her bed in her hostel room, she glanced at her mobile phone. Nearly 12 am. She needed to rest. “100, 99,98, 97” she began counting off in her mind. Taught to her by a psychologist, it’s a drill she had repeated many times over the past couple of years. The receding numbers trick worked and Mirabai eventually drifted off to sleep below a poster of China’s legendary 48kg competitor Yang Lian powering a bar weighed down with red, green and yellow plates over her head.
The next day, June 20 to be precise, Mirabai has another legend, Indian this time, for company as she warms up ahead of her competition. It’s the selection trials to determine India’s participants at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Sleep deprived when she made weight early in the morning she is wide awake now, and listening intently to what Kunjurani Devi has to say. Kunjurani Devi had finished fourth in the 48kg category at the 2004 Olympics, still the best result by an Indian weightlifter apart from Karnam Malleswari’s bronze from Sydney. Now as a coach with the Indian team at NIS Patiala, she hovers like a hen around the warmup area. There she gives last-minute advice to Mirabai and Sanjita Chanu, Commonwealth Games gold medalist, both vying for a ticket to Rio. Like Kunjurani, Mirabai competes in the 48kg category. Mirabai is a small woman – 149 cm she says. She tips the scales at 47.68kg. Her shoulder-length hair is restrained in a bun, held down in place by a bunch of coloured hair pins with flower, bird and smiling animal face motifs – mementos from her visits to countries for various competitions. The colourful trinkets are the only concession to gaiety in the otherwise spartan grey hall. Hazy single page photostats from a Bulgarian manual on weightlifting line the walls. The smell of iodex hangs thickly. The only sounds are the quick shouts of advice – ‘first pull slow, second pull fast’ – from the coaches, the primal grunt of the women as they defy gravity to launch more than twice their body weight above their head and the final wham-wham-wham of the iron discs dropping down and bouncing up off the creaking wooden platforms. It’s a hard world. It’s also one where Mirabai excels. By all accounts she has done enough and more to be an obvious pick for the Olympics. Over the last couple of years, the 22-year-old, who tipped the scales Friday morning at 47.68kg, has emerged as India’s premier weightlifter. She finished ninth at last year’s worlds in Houston.
At the Asian Championships in Baku last month she had finished seventh – and was pivotal in winning an Olympic quota for the country. On the way to her total lift of 190kg – which incidentally was just 2 kg away from the silver mark- Mirabai had broken Kunjurani’s 12-year-old record in the snatch with a lift of 85kg and matched her total lift record. By late morning on Friday, in the competition hall that is separated by a thin wall from the warm up zone, Mirabai would do even better. She would match another record of Kunjurani – with a clean and jerk lift of 107 kg and set a new total record of 192 kg. The total is the fourth best of the year in the world. It is a world-class lift by a lifter who is that rare creature in Indian sport – a genuinely world-class athlete. There was a time when Mirabai wasn’t world-class though. There was a time when she was just another school-girl in Imphal. Sport was always around her. She loved playing football with her two brothers while the TV was mostly her sport freak father’s domain. The tube was how she got her first look at weightlifting too. “I first saw weightlifting on TV. I think it was Kunjurani Devi’s performance at the 2004 Olympics. When I slept that night I dreamt that I was on the podium with a medal. I knew right from then that I wanted to be a weightlifter,” she says.
And if she wanted to be a weightlifter, it had to be Kunjurani Devi. “At that time Kunjurani maam was a big star in Manipur. She was on TV a lot and I even read about her in school books. It wasn’t as if I was very strong so I became a weightlifter. I wasn’t very big but it was what I wanted to do,” she says. Soon after her first dreams of the Olympics, Mirabai would begin training at the Manipur State weightlifting center in Imphal under the eye of Anita Chanu, another of the state’s famous lifters. “Mirabai has spoken to Kunjurani about the predicament and for once even the senior has no good answer, despite having had the same experience of fighting sport-induced insomnia in her competitive days. She has visited psychologists before and followed through their usual tricks – take deep breaths, count backwards from a hundred, read a book. It’s a temporary fix. Mirabai however believes she knows what it will take to fix it. “I need to win a medal at the Olympics. If that happens, I’ll finally be able to sleep at peace.”

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