Hailing from the hotbed of weightlifting in Manipur, Mirabai’s tryst with the sport came at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games participant Anita’s training centre in the Khuman Lampak stadium, at Luwangsangbam in North Manipur, some 22kms away from Mirabai’s remote village of Nongpok Kakching.
The youngest of six siblings, Mirabai’s father Saikhom Kriti Singh is a construction worker with the state’s Public Works Department, and mother Saikhom Tombi Devi runs a small tea stall in the village. Anita recalled how Mirabai lived on home-made steamed black and white rice, and boiled vegetables during the four years of intensive training at her academy.
“Mirabai’s silver in Tokyo has fulfilled my dream of setting up an academy that can produce Olympic medallists. But what makes her journey sweeter is her determination to make it big irrespective of the hardships she had faced while growing up in a middle class family,” Anita recalled during an interaction.
“The first time I saw her, she was probably 9 years old, and she would comfortably lift around 70kilos, which was double her body weight. And believe me, she would live on home cooked boiled vegetables and black rice. Today her perseverance has paid off,” Anita added.
“The best part of Mirabai’s childhood is she never complained no matter how rigorous the training schedule was, she would undergo it without a word,” she further said.
On being asked the secret of the state producing so many weightlifters, Chanu said the average Manipuri has the right build for weightlifting, “short but with good muscle mass”, especially for the lower weight categories.
The youngster went on to become a junior national champion in Chhattisgarh in 2009 before breaking into the national camp in 2011, when she came under Anita’s former teammate and 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist Nameirakpam Kunjarani Devi.
“I first met her during the youth national camp in 2011. I used to take feedback about her from coaches back in Manipur, there was a spark, determination and willpower in the youngster. She has always been a coach’s delight, and would religiously stick to the rules set by the coach,” recalls Kunjarani, popularly known as the Hercules from Manipur.
“During that time, she had good body muscle mass, and appeared to be a great prospect. I worked with her till around 2015-16, even during the South Asian Games in Guwahati,” she added.
“Even after 2016, when I left the national camp for another assignment, I used to keep track of Mirabai’s progress, as she carried a billion hopes to Tokyo, her medal testifies our belief in her, she has made us proud,” the two-time Asian Games bronze medallist further said.
In the last five years, Mirabai has won the Commonwealth Games gold in 2018 followed by a fourth-place finish with a national record of 201kg in the 49kg category at the 2019 World Championships in Thailand. Earlier this year, she took a bronze with a combined total of 205kg at the Asian Championships in Tashkent.
Now that she has accomplished her mission in Tokyo, the Chanu household in Nongpok Kakching eagerly awaits her return to prepare her favourite dishes, especially eromba, a mildly-spiced stew of fish and vegetables and celebrate her rise as India’s latest poster girl of weightlifting.