Tokyo 2020: Can world record holder Mirabai Chanu live up to the expectations?

It may not be easy for Mirabai Chanu to let go of the memories of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. The weightlifter from Imphal was one of India’s medal hopefuls when she, perhaps bogged down by the pressure of competing in the world’s biggest sporting event, failed to clear all three of her clean and jerk attempts in the women’s 48kg category. Chanu had managed a lift of 82kg in the snatch event before faltering in clean and jerk and thereby bidding goodbye to her hopes of a medal.

“After Rio Olympics, I broke down when I could not bring home a medal even after working so hard in training. I was unable to understand why I failed. It was a tough period,” Chanu had told reporters in April this year. “It was my first Olympics. There was so much pressure because of the expectations. People were expecting a medal from me. At the time, Chanu was just 22 years old. Speaking to a psychologist would later help her regain her confidence, Chanu said.

“Players need psychologists a lot. Sometimes we feel really dull, we don’t feel like training or if we get injured during training, we feel low. At that time a psychologist helps a lot. They motivate us,” Chanu said.

Since the disappointment of the Rio Games, Chanu has taken big strides in the sport and has firmly established herself as one of the medal contenders in the 49kg category at the Tokyo Olympics.

She won her first major international title when she won the gold medal at the 2017 World Weightlifting Championships in Anaheim, USA. Just a few months later, she would go on to clinch the gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia.

As she worked on her technique, strength and mental fortitude, Chanu began to lift heavier and heavier. Earlier this year, the Manipuri weightlifter broke the world record for the highest lift in women’s 49kg clean and jerk category – 119kg. The same event in which she fluffed one 104kg and two 106kg lifts in Rio. Her combined total lift of 205kg in clean and jerk and snatch at the same event was a personal best.

Chanu will, however, be looking to improving her lifts in snatch, having managed a personal best of 88kg so far, well below the world record of 96kg.

In Tokyo, another factor will significantly boost Chanu’s hopes of securing a medal when she takes the stage on July 24. While Hou Zhihui of China, who has won gold medals in World Cup, World Championships and Asian Championships and also holds the snatch and combined world records, will start as the favourite for the gold on Saturday, the field will not feature two big names.

Zhihui’s compatriot Jiang Huihua, who won the gold at the 2019 World Championships, will miss out on the event as only one lifter from a country is allowed in each category. Following the withdrawal of North Korea from the Tokyo Olympics, another medal contender in Ri Song-gum will also not feature in the event. This has left Chanu as the second seed in the 49kg category.

Jourdan Delacruz of the US, who has managed multiple combined efforts of 200kg or more in international events and won a World Cup gold last year, will be among Chanu’s rivals for a medal.

Despite the pandemic, the 26-year-old Indian weightlifter’s preparations have also been on course. Last year, she went to the US on a two-month training programme as part of her Tokyo preparations. Chanu has also worked on the lower back pain that had been causing her a few problems in recent years. Since last year, she has been working with Dr. Aaron Horschig, a prominent physiotheraphist in St. Louis and a former weightlifter himself.

Training under Horschig has helped Chanu improving her regime, she said. “After I started training in lockdown, the back problem resurfaced. There has been huge improvement after working with Dr. Horschig. My training methods and routines have changed. If I do a heavy workout one day, I take it light the next day. He made me do a lot of rehabilitation exercises, for my shoulder, back and on various movements,” she explained earlier this year.

The focus in recent times, as Chanu explained during the interaction in April, has been to improve her performance in snatch, where she is a bit off the pace compared to her main rivals. “I have felt more comfortable in clean and jerk from the beginning. I am more confident. In snatch, my technique was not very good so I could not go higher in weights. I am still working on my technique in snatch,” she said.

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