Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, an Indian weightlifter has come a long way from failing to lift in any of her three clean & jerk efforts at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games to winning a silver medal in Tokyo.
Mirabai, a 26-year-old from Manipur, came in second with a total of 202kg (87 in snatch and 115 in clean and jerk) to take silver behind China's Hou Zihui (210kg — 94 snatch and 116 clean and jerk).
Aisah Windy Cantika of Indonesia won bronze with a total weight of 194kg.
Mirabai earned India's first medal in Tokyo, and she became the country's second weightlifter to win an Olympic medal. At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Karnam Malleswari earned the country's first medal in the sport.
Mirabai's victory broke a two-decade slump in Indian weightlifting, which had been marred by many doping scandals, notably the 2004 Athens Olympics when Pratima Kumari and Sanamacha Chanu embarrassed the country. Mirabai's gold will also be a consolation prize for a sport that has produced champions and drug offenders in the past.
Mirabai, who works for the Indian Railways, got into weightlifting by accident. She had gone to the Khuman Lampak Stadium in Imphal, Manipur's capital, at the age of 12 to enrol in archery.
Mirabai went into the neighbouring weightlifting arena to inquire about archery because the archery centre was closed. Instead, the weights and weightlifting apparatus drew her in and she became committed to the sport for life. Mirabai found weightlifting easy since she had developed her strength by carrying firewood up and down the hills.
She would travel roughly 20 kilometres every day from her home in Mongkok Kakching village to Imphal, the state capital, for weightlifting training over the next few years.
Mirabai went to Delhi after making a name for herself at the national level, and she quickly advanced to the national camp.
Her first big break came at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow when she won silver in the 48 kg weight category.
"She is very hardworking and determined and has strong willpower, which is evident from her comeback after the disappointment she faced in Rio de Janeiro," N Kunjarani Devi, an Indian women's weightlifting superstar who has won over 50 international medals, including silver at the World Championships, says.
Mirabai, according to Kunjarani has worked hard for her success, spending years away from home and battling with minimal means.
"Manipur is a small state, not so financially rich. Mirabai comes from a middle-class family and had to struggle a lot to pursue weightlifting. Her parents and family supported her and she also took care of them once she got a job with the Railways. She also got cash awards for winning medals at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. As a Manipuri, I feel proud that a girl from my home state has won India's first medal at the Tokyo Olympics," Kunjarani, a senior CRPF officer stationed in Delhi, agrees.
"Mirabai richly deserves all the accolades coming her way because she has proven that hard work always pays," Kunjarani added.
Mirabai has received several awards in the previous five years. She has received the Arjuna Award, as well as the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna and the Padma Shri.
In 2017, she became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the World Weightlifting Championships since Karnam Malleswari (1994). She won gold at the Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast, Australia, in 2018. She established a world record in the clean and jerk at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent in April 2021.
However, this was also the time when she began to suffer from injuries, particularly to her shoulder and back.
In 2019, she travelled to the United States for a long rehabilitation and conditioning camp with Dr Aaron Horschig, a renowned strength and conditioning coach. She had gone to the United States just before the Olympics to spend two weeks at Dr Horschig's academy since the injuries had resurfaced and were bothering her.
As she travelled from St. Louis to Tokyo, those who were following her career crossed their fingers for her. Mirabai, on the other hand, had resolve written all over her face. She wished to dispel the spectre of the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro once and for all.