Born in a poor family, Mirabai was the youngest of six siblings. Her father Saikhom Kriti Meitei used to work as a construction worker in the state Public Works Department in Imphal, while her mother Saikhom Tombi Devi ran a small tea-snack shop at the village. The salary of her father was just about enough for hand-to-mouth existence.
She often used to accompany her brothers to the nearby jungle to collect firewood that the family used as fuel. On one such trip, Mirabai went with her brother Saikhom Sanatomba Meitei, who was 16 at that time, into the hills to collect firewood. The brother-sister duo collected a bundle of firewood, and Sanatomba tried to lift the bunch on his head. But he wasn’t able to.
“To my utter surprise, Mira easily lifted the bundle of firewood on her head. She then walked back to our home that was some two kilometres away with the stack. She was about 12 years of age then,” said Sanatomba.
Not only this, when she was around 5-6 years old, Mirabai used to carry buckets full of water on her head back to her home, negotiating the steep inclines of the hilly region.
“There was a lot of financial crisis and my parents could hardly support her. Whatever she has done, it’s on her own,” said Sanatomba.
When she was 12, Mirabai then visited the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Imphal at the Khuman Lampak Stadium. She went on the lookout for archery training but could not find any on the said day.
Incidentally, she then saw some clips of another female weightlifter from Manipur Kunjarani Devi, who was a seven-time silver medallist at the World Championships, winning gold at the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games and got inspired by her. Mirabai knew where her future lay.
Bereft of any weightlifting infrastructure in her village, Mirabai eventually found herself under the tutelage of coach Anita Chanu. She would travel around 40 km over hilly terrains daily for her training.
“Mirabai came to the coaching academy in 2006. I was involved with the talent identification programme then. We ran specific physical tests like running, jumping, squatting, explosiveness. She did well in all tests,” Anita Chanu, who competed at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games, said.
“The biggest problem for us was sending her alone to Imphal for training. We had to bow down before Mira’s insistence. We tried to explain to her that it would be difficult on her part to train in Imphal, but she was ready to cover 40 km a day daily. At times, she would hitch a ride on a truck or if she got lucky share a tuk-tuk, some days she would cycle, and some days she would come half the way and then walk back home. She never threw in the towel,” mother Tombi Devi said.
At the centre, Mirabai first used bamboo trunks as barbells to hone her technique and after six months switched to conventional tools.
Two years later, she made it to the national camp. A tenacious Mirabai went on to win titles at the state level in the sub-junior category and then clinched her first national medal in the junior category in 2011.
Soon after, she earned her national team call-up and ultimately came under the guidance of her idol Kunjarani Devi. Then came her first taste of the international stage at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won a silver and announced herself to the world.