Lovlina Borgohain has always been unusual. In her school, in Baro Mukhia village in Golaghat district of Assam, she was taller than her peers. It didn’t do her any favours as her height was often made fun of.
But in Tokyo on Friday, her height was a big factor as she beat former world champions Nien-Chin Chen of Chinese Taipei to enter the semi-finals in the welterweight category and thus assure herself of an Olympic medal.
Just 23, and making her debut at the Games, Lovlina has achieved what only two Indian boxers – Vijender Singh and Mary Kom – have managed in the past... win an Olympic medal.
UPDATED: She finished with bronze medal after defeat in the semi-final on Wednesday.
Lovlina’s foray into boxing happened more by accident than by design. Padum Boro, coach at Sports Authority of India’s Shillong and Dimapur centers saw the potential in the then kickboxer and felt she had it in her to make it big as a boxer.
“She seemed to have the talent and physique to make a good boxer. We merely guided her through. What stood out about her was her calm mind even at that time. She is not the sort who gets easily ruffled, tension nahi leti hai,” Boro said.
“She is also a very disciplined kid.”
For Lovlina too, boxing clicked instantly. She loved it more than kickboxing and there was no looking back.
However, all was not rosy for the Assamese boxer. She faced a backlash from society for being a female boxer. Her father small-scale businessman had a lot of financial difficulties but he never let it come in the way of his daughter’s dreams.
“They backed her to the fullest, often discussed her game with me and were willing to do anything for her dreams,” said Boro.
Beginning a career in boxing also meant she had to leave her home and stay at SAI hostels, first in Guwahati and then in New Delhi. It was challenging for both Lovlina and her parents.
“I only went out of home to go to school and now suddenly I was going away,” she said.
“I had a lot of problems in the beginning because it was the first time for me away from home. I was very sad. I had no friends in the hostel and I cried a lot. My parents were also sad. I took a lot of time to adjust.”
But she slowly made her peace. She grew close to fellow Assamese Bhagyabati Kachari in the camp and called her parents every day over WhatsApp.
Her first biggest achievement was winning a bronze medal at the 2017 Asian Championships in Vietnam. She followed that with another international medal in the President’s Cup in Astana where she won bronze. But it was her performance at the first-ever India Open boxing in January 2018 where she won the gold medal that put her in the frame for the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast.
However, doing her bit in the boxing ring wasn’t enough. Lovlina wasn’t even intimated of her selection. She only came to know about it when reporters contacted her for an interview. Eventually, she received the official letter. Her CWG campaign ended in the quarter-final but the Indian was slowly finding her feet at the international stage.
A silver medal at Ulaanbaatar Cup in Mongolia was the ideal preparation for the World Championship in New Delhi in 2018. She truly established her credentials with a bronze losing to eventual gold medallist Nien-Chin Chen, who she beat in Tokyo on Friday.
She proved that the 2019 bronze was no flash in the pan by repeating the feat in 2021 at the Dubai World Championship.
Being the first female boxer from Assam to qualify for the Olympics, there was plenty of excitement surrounding the boxer but her preparation was far from ideal.
The youngster missed a training trip to Italy at the fag end of last year, testing positive for Covid-19 a day before departure. She had travelled to her hometown in Assam to visit her ailing mother and came back to test positive for the virus, robbing her of crucial training and competitive exposure.
The lack of training was visible in the Asian Championships last month where she lost in her very first bout although the small size of the draw ensured that she still ended up with a bronze medal.
However, her coach knew his pupil would be unfazed and put up a good show in Tokyo.
“Wo aaram se jeetegi, koi tension nahi hai (She will win easily, no reason to worry),” Boro told PTI on Thursday.
In Tokyo, nothing seems to have fazed her. She had a tough draw facing World No 5 Nadine Apetz of Germany in the Round of 16. She emerged victorious from a tough bout against the German winning by a split 3-2 verdict.
The only question mark over Lovlina, who is very strong technically, was her ability to cope with pressure on her Olympics debut. She has answered that question in style.
The win against Apetz boosted her confidence and that was on full display in the dominant win over World No 2 Chen. Her task ahead doesn’t get any easier as she faces the reigning world champion and World No 1 Busenaz Surmeneli in the semi-final, but if you watched Lovlina fight in her quarter-final bout, she seems to fear no one.
Lovlina is still an emerging name in the world of boxing but at 23, but she stands a chance of surpassing greats like Mary Kom and Vijender Singh by becoming the first boxer to reach an Olympic final.
The magnitude of her achievement can be gauged by the way she let her emotions overcome her after the win. And the way she has been going in Tokyo, it may not be the last time she celebrates.
(With PTI inputs)