For the past six years, there is one big opponent Saikhom Mirabai Chanu has constantly faced. Herself.
This opponent been a mentally demanding rival – like at the 2016 Rio Olympics and immediate aftermath, when she was faced with self doubts. It’s been a physically crippling foe – like it was after the 2018 Commonwealth Games and once the pandemic struck.
Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics last year, she told The Indian Express, “I am competing against myself.”
So she did, and so she won. The previous injuries that had troubled her to the point that she nearly gave up the sport were all overcome as she stood on the podium and beamed proudly with an Olympic silver medal hanging around her neck.
Tokyo 2020: Mirabai Chanu’s single-minded journey to Olympic silver medal
Now as she gets set to compete at her first big major event since that Tokyo silver, she faces that opponent once again. Only this time, at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, it’s in a positive vein.
The weightlifting field at CWG is not the strongest when compared to the competitive Asian Games and the pinnacle that is Olympics. But the beauty of a sport such as weightlifting is that it allows you to push yourself further even if there is nobody else to do it for you. Much like sprinting alone where you can race against time, here you can push harder to lift greater loads.
Chanu is already the defending champion. She set the CWG record in 2018 (in the 49kg women’s category) for snatch (86 kg), clean & jerk (110 kg) and the total (196kg). In Birmingham she will compete to break her own world record.
“CWG will be easy for me, (but) I will be fighting with myself,” she told PTI from NIS, Patiala recently.
“There is not much competition, but that doesn’t mean there is no competition. I have to give my best performance keeping in mind the future tournaments. I am thinking of attempting 120kg (in clean & jerk – going one kg better than her own world record).”
The 27-year-old’s personal best is 88 kg in snatch (2020 National Championships) and the world record 119 kg in clean and jerk, set at the Asian Championships in Tashkent, three months before her trip to Tokyo. It was there in Uzbekistan where she managed her best record at a single event, a total of 205 kg.
One of the closest rivals she will face in Birmingham is Nigeria’s Stella Kingsley, who has a career best 168kg total (72 in snatch and 96 in C&J).
But Chanu is well used to competing against herself.
How weightlifting works:
Each athlete will perform three lifts in each of the two classic weightlifting disciplines – The snatch (a one-move lift with a wide grip), and the clean and jerk (a close-gripped, two part lift). Each competitor will have just three attempts in each of the two disciplines to make their best lifts, always starting with the snatch. The lifter must secure one snatch as well as one clean and jerk to gain a total and placing at the end of the competition. At the end of the competition, each athlete’s heaviest lift in each of the disciplines is combined, and the competitor with the highest aggregate (total) weight secures Gold.— via Birmingham 2022 website
In 2017 she became only the second Indian, after Karnam Malleswari, to win a World Championship title (Chanu was then competing in the 48kg event). Then at Gold Coast 2018 she increased her personal best by two kgs (196).
At the 2019 World Championships she lifted over 200 kgs for the first time, registering 201, and has crossed the 200kg mark three more times – including the 202 she managed at the Tokyo Olympics.
She has been improving on her own performances ever since the disappointment in Rio, where she was one of the pre-tournament favourites but failed to record a legitimate lift in the C&J.
Miarabai's international results since 2016
|2021||Tokyo 2020||2||49 kg||87||115||202|
|2021||Asian C'ships||3||49 kg||86||119||205|
|2019||6th Qatar International Cup||1||49 kg||83||111||194|
|2019||IWF Worlds||4||49 kg||87||114||201|
|2019||Commonwealth C'ships||1||49 kg||84||107||191|
|2019||Asian C'ships||4||49 kg||86||113||199|
|2019||EGAT's Cup||1||49 kg||82||110||192|
|2017||IWF Worlds||1||48 kg||85||109||194|
|2017||Commonwealth C'ships||1||48 kg||85||104||189|
|2016||Rio 2016||---||48 kg||82||--|
There was also that harsh patch after the 2018 CWG where constant back niggles forced her to miss the Asian Games.
“We weren’t able to train. We were not even able to come close to lifting this kind of load,” coach Vijay Sharma had told The Indian Express.
It wasn’t till late in 2020, during a training camp in the United States where the problem was finally diagnosed – imbalance in her technique.
“Strength was not an issue for Mira. The problem, it turned out, was biomechanical,” Sharma had added.
“One shoulder was weak, which put the other under a lot more stress. She had difficulty in controlling her lower-body movement while squatting which put pressure on her lower back. That got sorted out.”
Fine-tuning the technique, coupled with her talent and power, helped her become the first Indian to win an Olympic medal on the opening day of an edition. It was a medal much more prestigious than any other the sport has to offer.
Yet there’s still a lot that can be achieved in Birmingham. It’s safe to say that Chanu is a massive favourite for the gold. How she wins it, is up to her. There is really just one opponent she needs to push past – Mirabai.