Olympic medalist. Six-time World Championship winner. Five-time Asian Championship winner. Asian Games and Commonwealth Games champion.
One of India’s most decorated athletes, MC Mary Kom has been boxing legend and a trailblazer in more ways than one. For nearly two decades, she has been the face of Indian boxing and even at 37, continues to raise the bar year after year.
When young Mary Kom burst onto the scene in 2000, women’s amateur boxing rarely witnessed competitions barring those at the national level. Now, it is a sport widely pursued in the country. Twenty years down the line, she remains not only a boxing icon, but a role model and inspiration for athletes across genders.
But if there was one moment that cemented Mary’s place among the greatest Indian athletes, it would be when she secured bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, becoming the first Indian woman boxer to bag a medal at the Games. While women’s amateur boxing was introduced at the world stage in 2001, it made its first appearance at the Olympics only in 2012 and the Indian pounced on the chance. She had a glut of World Championship medals, but the podium at Olympics is completely different.
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The road to London
Women’s boxing was limited to three categories at the London Games – 51kg, 60kg and 75kg. Mary, who previously competed in the 46 and 48 kg categories, had to shift to the 51 kg category to be eligible for the Games.
After winning silver at the inaugural edition of the AIBA Women’s World Championships in 2001, her first-ever medal, Mary Kom had proved her credentials on the world stage by winning five back-to-back World titles in the build-up to the 2012 Games. But all of them in the lower weight brackets.
Competing in the 2012 World Championships, Mary needed to reach the semi-finals or finish among the top two Asian boxers at the event to qualify for London in the 51kg bracket.
China’s Ren Cancan sealed her birth after winning gold at the event. Meanwhile, North Korean Hye Kim and Mary were in reckoning for the final Asian spot, both having lost in the quarter-finals to Elena Savelyeva and Nicola Adams respectively.
The winner of the Worlds semi-finals between Savelyeva and Adams was to decide the second slot for Asia and Mary saw the result go in her way as Adams won, although the Indian missed out on a World Championship medal for the first time.
Many had questioned the Manipuri’s form after that defeat, but there was huge pressure on her shoulders, being the only Indian women boxer competing at London. L Sarita Devi (60kg) had narrowly missed out on qualification.
Mary’s crowning glory
With plenty expected from her, Mary showed no signs of nerves in her first Olympic appearance. The Indian started off with a bang, defeating Poland’s Karolina Michalczuk 19-14 in her first match. The exchanges in the first round were tight, which ended 3-3. Michalczuk was physically stronger but Mary regained her groove in the second round before going on to comfortably beat her opponent.
Mary was later up against Tunisian Maroua Rahali in the second round, with a win enough to assure her of a medal. The Indian pugilist mixed caution with aggression as she outplayed the 5-feet-10-inch tall Rahali with a scoreline of 15-6.
Mary began in a calculative manner, frustrating her opponent with quick footwork and solid defence as she built up a 5-3 lead after two rounds. She went out all attack in the remaining two rounds against the sluggish Rahali to finish the bout in a comprehensive manner, assuring India their fourth medal at London.
There were tougher tests lying ahead for Mary. She was set to face local favourite Adams, the same opponent who had previously beaten her at the World Championship. Despite the emphatic nature of her wins en route to the quarter-finals, Mary could not find the same momentum.
She failed to penetrate Adams’ defense, appeared sluggish and was beaten 6-11 by the two-time Olympic gold medallist.
Buoyed by vociferous support from the stands, Adams opened up a 3-1 lead in the opening round. The Indian struggled to make inroads in the remaining rounds. Adams went on to win gold while Chinese Cancan finished second. USA’s Marlen Esparza who lost to Cancan, also bagged bronze.
Despite becoming only the third Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, Mary wasn’t satisfied with her achievement.
“I am very happy to be the first Indian woman boxer to get a bronze medal but I am sad that I could not convert it into gold. I don’t know what happened during my semi-final bout. My body was not moving the way I would have liked and I felt as if I could not do anything. I was very much confused,” the boxer told PTI when she returned home.
“I never get nervous before bouts but that day I don’t know what was happening to me. I can’t even explain it. I was not attacking as much and maybe it was the crowd also which was cheering Nicola [Adams]. I generally don’t get affected by how the crowd is behaving but probably in the semi-finals, it affected me,” she said.
Mary lost her semi-final bout but had won hearts back home, defying all odds to once again bag silverware on the world stage the first time her sport was given Olympic status. Although a bronze was heartbreak for Mary, her bronze helped India enjoy their most successful Olympic campaign in history as the country secured six medals (two silvers and four bronze).