Indian weightlifting star Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, returning to the international stage after a pandemic-enforced one-year break, did not complete her first two lifts in the snatch section at the Asian Championship in Tashkent on 17 April. The situation was all too uncomfortably familiar for her.
She stepped up for her third attempt, the pressure to register an attempt immense. She managed to life 86kg in snatch. Not bad.
And it was going to get better.
She followed it with a world record of 119kg in clean and jerk for a total score of 205kg. The effort fetched her a bronze medal, as the snatch weight wasn’t quite enough. But the weight of mental burden seems to have definitely reduced.
Addressing the media after winning an Asian Championship bronze and setting a new world record, fielded multiple questions about her Rio Olympics heartbreak in an articulate, almost matter of fact way.
Seen as a genuine medal prospect at the 2016 Games, she could not lift in any of her three attempts in the clean and jerk section. It was brutal to not even properly finish in your first Olympics appearance.
Since then she has won gold at the 2017 World Championship and 2018 Commonwealth Games and is one of the top names in the 49kg weight category. But with the Tokyo Olympics scheduled to be held in a few months, most questions go back to five years. She answers them candidly before describing her state of mind as being “completely broken”.
“I kept thinking why I failed despite working so hard and was questioning myself. But after talking to a psychologist I understood that it was my first Olympics and the pressure got to me. Slowly, I was able to focus on training again,” Chanu said.
The 26-year-old’s composure while talking about the dark time at the virtual press conference organised by the Sports Authority of India – where proximity to the camera makes it hard to hide emotions – is admirable. This confidence had manifested in her performance at the recently-concluded event in Tashkent.
“I was competing after a year and there were some nerves because I had not trained as much in the lockdown and had covered my weight with great difficulty. Maybe because of the break I got nervous and was not able to do well in snatch, except the last chance.
“Then before the clean and jerk, I went in thinking why I failed in snatch and that I had to cover that weight in clean and jerk to win a medal. My coach [Vijay Sharma] also said that snatch is now done but there are other lifts left. So I tried my best there and I was able to lift a world record,” she recounted.
What went through her mind before the final snatch lift?
“Of course, when the first lift goes bad, your mind starts to spiral. But my coach said ‘remember what went wrong and what you did in training and do that in competition as well.’ This helped and I used the short break we have to think calmly, concentrate on the steps I do in training. I told myself that I do this in training regularly so forget what has happened and focus on the next lift,” she said.
The many changes since Rio
The athlete from Manipur conceded that she is more comfortable with her clean and jerk action and that her snatch technique is still lacking. But she has worked extensively on improving this in the last five years.
“A lot has changed since Rio. I have changed my training method, worked on my technique. In clean and jerk, we have identified what part we need to work on and strengthened that body part and movement,” she said of the physical changes.
“Mentally, I try not to take too much pressure on myself before competitions now, of course that doesn’t mean it isn’t there but I tell myself that I have to do just what I do in training daily… We shouldn’t treat the competition as different from training,” she added.
A big part of her improvement, invariably, has been the delay of the Tokyo Olympics.
Late in 2020, she went to the US to work with weightlifter-turned-strength and conditioning coach Dr Aaron Horschig and it has proved to be immensely beneficial. Fitness is crucial now as she was injured after the Commonwealth Games and needed rehab for four months which made her miss the Asian Games.
“I have improved a lot under his guidance. The exercises he gives are different and focuses on the overall body. This has been very beneficial. Earlier if I had a heavy day in training, I was not able to do it the next day because of tightness in my body,” she said.
He has worked on her lower back issues in the past and now the focus is on her shoulder discomfort that is hindering her snatch action. She was able go to US last year under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme and her 2021 trip ahead of the impending Olympic Games was fast-tracked on Friday before further travel restrictions come in.
The silver lining of the Tokyo postponement was not initially visible.
“The Asian Championship was the last qualifying event and we were planning for that when the lockdown came in. I was wondering if I should even plan ahead and I didn’t touch the weight for three-four months and there seemed to be no hope,” she said.
She had an interesting way to keep herself motivated during the lockdown last year: watching her old videos. “But I had to train and keep my body muscles strong… I would tell myself that eventually the Games will happen and not to get down, I would do whatever training I can in my room and watch my videos to stay motivated,” she said.
A lot of this positivity and perspective is the consequence of working with a sports psychologist, something she advocates.
“It is important for players… sometimes we feel dull, if there’s an injury during training or maybe because we have had a bad performance. At such a time talking to psychologists is helpful because they explain that tomorrow is a new day and to try again,” she said, citing her Rio example.
Chanu is sticking to this optimistic frame of mind ahead of the big Tokyo test, not delving much into the absence of North Korea, which increases her medal chances, or her the Chinese challenge.
Right now her mission is simple: Do in Tokyo what she couldn’t in Rio. The possible implication is subtle but vital, because if she betters that and manages even one good lift in snatch, her clean and jerk action could well lift her to the podium.