Mirabai Chanu completes her redemption arc, five years in the making

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Remember that moment from the final of the men’s 100m at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where Usain Bolt pointed to the cameras even before he had crossed the finish line? Mirabai Chanu has one of those now too.

While the knowledge that Mirabai had won silver in the women’s 49kg weightlifting event – the first medal for India in Tokyo – was still the better part of an hour away, there was a moment early in the competition where the 26-year-old knew she had it in the bag.

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It came in her very first lift of the competition – a snatch lift for 84kg. Mirabai has routinely struggled with this lift. It’s a single movement lift, far more technical than the two-movement clean and jerk lift that she has a world record in. It is also critical to the Indian’s prospects. Miss it, and Mirabai would be playing catch up. How Mirabai did in her first lift would have a cascading effect on the rest of the competition.

As well as she has prepared for this moment, it isn’t her smoothest attempt. When Mirabai goes under the bar, her feet are wider than they need to be and she doesn’t have the weight under control. There in the bottom of the movement, in a squat, with the bar overhead, she pauses. It’s only for a fraction of a second but it feels like an eternity. Her Olympic hopes are in limbo right then but at the very end you can see the beginning of a smile crease across her face. Calmly, she stabilises the bar and stands up. She’s beaming now. The judges signal three white lights – clean lift.

Just like that, Mirabai is well on her way to completing a redemption arc that’s been five years in the making.

Five years ago, during her final lift of the Rio Olympics, Mirabai had stepped up to the bar. She had touched it reverentially in the way she always does. She had in red, white and green iron weights in front of her totaling 106kg. If she completed the lift, she had a bronze. The chance to create history. It’s nothing, a weight she’d lifted almost casually in practice. But on the day when she needed to more than ever, she fluffs her lines. The bar crashes and with it, so does Mirabai Chanu.

Mirabai would later speak later of the deep pit of despair she fell into. How she cried all the way from the stadium to her hotel room thinking she had lost the opportunity of a lifetime. Her roommates try to comfort her, her coaches try to convince her. Anita Chanu, who first trained Mirabai when she was a 12-year-old, reminded her when she returned home to Imphal looking to find some peace: “You are a child. Your time will come. Make the most of what you have learned.”

It takes a few weeks but Mirabai eventually finds the will to step back to the gym. “That was the lowest point of my life. But it made me what I am today,” she would say with the medal around her neck.

Once more into the fray.

Mirabai has grown older – at 27 she is at her physical peak. She has learned to win at the big stages – in 2017 she won gold at the World Championships. She has won gold at the Commonwealth Games too but it doesn’t really matter. Just after that win, she bought a pair of Olympic ring shaped ear studs that she’s still wearing in Tokyo. She made sacrifices – missed weddings and gone almost a year away from her family in Nongpak Kakching village in Imphal.

Her family is now the weightlifting community in the National Institute of Sport in Patiala – indeed her first video call post victory is made to the weightlifting hall where they are gathered whooping, hollering and dancing. She has grown stronger. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Olympics, Mirabai took the delay in stride. She emerged from it stronger than ever. Leaving nothing to chance, over the past five years, Mirabai has ironed out the flaws in her technique. Her clean and jerk is probably the best in the world. Just a few months back, she had finished third behind two Chinese weightlifters in the Asian Championships – (and with just one lifter from China permitted to compete at the Olympics) essentially second in the world.

On paper heading to her competition in Tokyo, it would be hard to argue Mirabai was not favored to place on the podium. As long as she had lifted the sort of weight she had done multiple times in practice and competition, she was almost assured of it. Where had we seen this before?

Over the weeks and days leading up to the Olympics, it had seemed that this was a different version of Mirabai, less mentally fragile than the one who went to Rio.

Just how would she do?

She absolutely nails it.

She makes her first two snatch lifts – for the first time since 2017. Her second lift is of 87kg, the best she has lifted in an international competition. When she starts the clean and jerk segment, the outcome is nearly certain. While China’s Zhihui is operating at another level, Mirabai is winning her own battle. She lifts 110kg in her first clean and jerk lift to make the remainder of the competition a formality.

In her final attempt of the evening, Mirabai has the chance to go for gold – provided she make a lift of 123kg. It’s four kilos more than her world record, and so she opts for an Olympic record of 117kg.

On her final lift of the Tokyo Olympics, Mirabai Chanu walks up to the bar. She touched it reverentially, in the way she always has at every competition she’s competed in. She had in brightly coloured red, white and green iron weights in front of her a total of 117kg. She knelt forward, then pulled the heavy bar cleanly to rest on her shoulder blades. The bar is two-and-a-half times her bodyweight. As she attempts to bring the bar overhead, it’s clear she is struggling. Her knee buckles, then her elbow gives way. The bar crashes down. Chanu squats in obvious disappointment. But then she rises with a smile and a wave.

Even in failure there is triumph.

Her previous lift, which she’d made cleanly was of 115kg. Add it to her lift of 87kg in the snatch section and Mirabai has lifted a total of 202kg. It’s 8kg less than that of the Chinese spiky-haired Zhihui but crucially 8kg ahead of Indonesia’s Windy Cantika in third place. It’s good enough for silver. It’s more than enough for redemption.



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