Exclusive: Olympian Saikhom Mirabai Chanu in conversation with Indulge says, 'Let the girls dream and win'
Going above the sports identity of the superstar of the hour — we catch up with Saikhom Mirabai Chanu, the girl who dreams of uplifting her village, dancing at socials and hopes to travel
On July 24, when Saikhom Mirabai Chanu lifted the 84 kg and 87 kg weighted barbell at the Tokyo Olympics and won the silver medal, she did more than just win a sporting event — she won our hearts. This 26-year-old Meitei athlete from a small village, Nongpok Kakching, in Imphal East District in Manipur, brought home India’s first medal from the Tokyo Olympics 2020 and created history. The world knows a lot about the sporting prowess of Mirabai Chanu now, but in this exclusive conversation with Indulge, we attempt to discover the other, more ‘real’ side of this petite powerhouse of positive energy and determination. Fresh from her win, Mirabai is currently as busy as a superstar. Her calendar is now choc-a-bloc with events, photo shoots, interviews and meetings with dignitaries from the State of Manipur and the rest of the country. A Manipur-based film production company has also announced plans to make a biopic on the life of Mirabai that will showcase her childhood and life in a village; her introduction to and training in weightlifting; her participation at national and international events, and lastly; her win at the Olympics.
Girl with plans
Mirabai tells us how she dreams of teaching weightlifting to the children in her village. “If I don’t pass on what I have learned, my life won’t be complete. I want to teach every child in my village, especially the women, all across Manipur. I want them to be confident and to show the country what they are made of as they are often the victims of harsh racial remarks outside the state,” she elucidates. She further adds, “I wanted to show that women can do anything, especially with the kind of background I come from. It was important for me to prove that talent can come from anywhere. And men and women are equal.” She explains, “I want to urge all parents to support their daughters in whatever they wish to do. Let them dream and win, they can make the nation proud. I wish many more women would come into weightlifting and other sports and bring the country many more medals.”
Even as Mirabai unravels her gritty journey in conversation with us, we find delightful hints of the bubbly girl behind the tough weightlifter, one whose journey to success included hitching rides on trucks to reach her training centre and carrying firewood to practice lifting. Her cheerful personality comes across, especially when she talks about the rich culture of the Meiteis in Manipur. Mirabai sadly had to give up on most festivals and celebrations when she was 17. Among her simple wishes that she shares with us, one is that she looks forward to celebrating the Manipuri Yaoshang festival properly in the coming year. She also wants to dance the Thabal Chongba during the festival (a folk dance performed by unmarried girls and boys together during the festival).
“Single girls and boys do this dance and many a time they would choose to dance with the one they like. It is performed at night during Yaoshang. I used to participate in social gatherings like these quite a lot before I started my weightlifting training, but had to stop. Now that I can take a break for a while, I am looking forward to doing it next year,” she says, beaming with excitement. But does she like someone or is there someone special she’d like to dance with next year? “Not yet,” she quickly adds. “I am focusing on my weightlifting as of now. However, I would like a partner who supports my passion for sports and respects my decisions,” states Mirabai, whose simplicity extends to her clothing and food preferences too. “I’m pretty traditional and just prefer a simple phanek (sarong worn by Meitei women). When it comes to food, nothing can compare to iromba (Meitei potato salad) and fish with steamed rice.”
Travel also finds a place in her wish list. Now that she has some time on hand she wants to explore Manipur. “I haven’t visited many places in Manipur and that’s next on the list. Before I could dream of any other place in the world I want to explore my own state and then maybe someday I want to travel to London and then the USA as I have seen these places only in Bollywood movies,” she enthuses.