For a long time, the Commonwealth Games amounted to the pinnacle of the careers for Indian weightlifters. While medals at the Games were plentiful, they were few and far between at a higher level of competition such as at the World Championships.
In such a scenario, 23-year-old Mirabai Chanu, is an exception. For while her best performance at the Commonwealth Games was a silver medal in the women’s 48KG category in 2014, she would go on to become the first Indian in a quarter century to win gold at the World Championships when she won the title at the 2017 edition in Anaheim.
Chanu’s achievement was the culmination of several years of struggle that had come with its own share of tragedies too. Born into a poor family in Nongpok Kakching in Manipur, Mirabai was the youngest of the six siblings. She has two brothers and three sisters. Her father still works as a lower level employee at the Pubic Works Department in Imphal, the state capital, while her mother runs a small shop at their village.
"When I was young and when I started my sport, it was a very difficult situation. My father's salary and the small income that comes from my mother's shop could hardly meet the ends of the family. It is better now as I am also working but you cannot say that we are well-off. We are still struggling," she said.
Chanu took up weightlifting in 2007 when inspired by another pioneer of Indian weightlifting, Kunjarani Devi. “Kunjarani has been one of my idols and I grew up in Manipur watching and learning about her exploits. She has been one of the reasons for my taking up the sport,” she says.
It did not take much time for Chanu to make her own mark as she won gold at the South Asian Junior Games and the 2011 International Youth Championship. Her progress in the senior ranks has been remarkable too. At the Glasgow Games, Chanu finished second with a combined lift of 170. Steady progress saw her enter the Rio Olympics with a personal best --and a new national record -- total of 192kg. This would have been more than enough to win her a medal. Yet when it mattered the most, Chanu faltered, and failed to make a clean lift in the clean and jerk section of the competition.
The result devastated Chanu, who lapsed into depression. She only emerged out of it with the zeal to train harder than ever. Her effort paid off in spectacular fashion, where she once again set the national record en route her gold medal.
As a world champion heading into the Commonwealth Games, the competition in Gold Coast isn’t expected to pose much of a challenge for Chanu. “"None of the other competitors has a total lift near 180 kg. I am not taking it easy but at the same time I will not exert too much also. I will try to lift 190kg or near about but will not try to go past say 195 kg or near 200 kg," she said.
"I don't want to get injured as there is Asian Games later this year. My main aim this year is to win gold in Asian Games with a top class performance. Many of the top lifters in the world will compete in Asian Games and I want to win gold there," she said.
Her ultimate goal though is to redeem herself for her performance at the Rio Olympics. That can only happen at the Tokyo Olympics. "My goal is to win a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That is the dream I am living with and for which I will do anything under the sun," she says.