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A titan with badass biceps and the widest smiles who just doesn’t give up

Her scarlet scrunchie circled her head like a halo. Pain relievers bore down on the cramps gnawing at her abdomen. The hooter went off. Mirabai Chanu bent and touched the center of the barbell with her right hand and then her forehead in reverence.

Snatch attempt 1: 84 kgs

30 seconds stood between all or nothing.

Hardest of the six attempts. Start well and she could sail. Make a hash of this one and it could be – hello horrors of Rio, once again. Snatch – the act of picking up the barbell from floor to overhead position in a single, explosive, fluid movement – had been her weak spot.

She walked into the playing hall carrying the words of coach Vijay Sharma asking her to pound every will, every ounce into the snatch. The first tone-setting attempt above the rest. Focus, focus, focus. Cranking up a frenzy never worked with her. Pep had to be calm and assured in the moments leading into a lift.

She clasped both ends of the barbell with her powdered fingers, got into squat position, feet wider than the prescriptive hip-width apart, took in a big mouthful of air and lifted with her legs, glutes, back, soul and belief. The bar tilted to her right as she pulled herself under the metal. As it rose overhead, shaft, sleeves and all, she rolled her wrists over, her shoulders and triceps drove the bar to a full lockout position, arms locked out at the elbows. She straightened her spine, stood erect, and a motionless second later her face broke into a relieved smile. Three white lights came on. Chalo ab kar lenge (OK now we can do this), an anxious, palpitating Sharma, in a bright blue pair of tracks, watching her from the doorway, exhaled. Clean lift. Weight lifted.

Attempt 2: 87 kgs. Medal in sight. Karnam Malleshwari, bronze, 2000 Sydney Olympics. The only medal in the sport India had ever won at a Games before.

This was Mirabai’s chance to create Indian sporting history on Day 1 of an Olympic Games.

Five years wiser, she’d traveled from depressive bouts, almost quitting the sport to firmly pitching herself into medal reckoning. Athletes are hard wired to push through everything thrown at them and not bare their weaknesses. After Rio, Mirabai had to stop, detach, reset and tell herself she needed help.

She had to chase the ghosts of a failed show at the Games out from the darkest corners of her mind. A medal potential even then, she managed only one clean lift from six. She had to acknowledge that she needed assistance with her mind and work on her lifting technique.

Sharma crunched the feeling he lived with for five years between Rio and Tokyo into five words, like he does with numbers and weights: Imandari se na so paana (Not being able to sleep with a good conscience).

She fought a lower back injury in late 2018, looked into by a bunch of puzzled top doctors. There were no clear answers. Whether she’d be in competition-shape ever again was even more unclear. The mysterious pain disappeared as abruptly as it had shown up and Mirabai drowned herself in training.

Next it was the pandemic’s turn to mess up muscle strength. For two months, she was confined to her tiny hostel room at NIS, Patiala. When she was back among the barbells, her back and shoulder weren’t the same. They were weak, aching and everyday training turned into an exercise in testing her pain threshold. She could barely lift half the load she would pre-lockdown. Fifty days before the Games, Mirabai and coach Sharma flew to the USA for the final lap of preparations.

Former American weightlifter turned physiotherapist Aaron Horschig worked on her muscle imbalance with the fastidiousness of a surgeon. On the eve of her Tokyo event, menstrual cramps set in. The kind that can turn the back and lower abdomen into tornado-tossed wreckage and legs into jelly. Sharma and Mirabai’s worst pre-competition fears had quickly morphed into reality. Strategy had to be switched the night before, from ambitious to conservative, Sharma recounted.

Hou Zhihui, poker-faced in red singlet, was Mirabai’s primary adversary in the 49 kg event. The Chinese had wrapped up the snatch with a 94 kg final attempt Olympic record.

The next part of the event – Clean and Jerk – was Mirabai’s Money-In-The-Bank move.

If the snatch is a single movement built on technical finesse, clean and jerk is a two-part lift – floor to shoulder blades, shoulder blades to overhead – propelled by raw power. The Indian always had spades of the latter. The world record at 119 kg was already hers.

Attempt 1: 110 kg. Easy-peasy.

Attempt 2: 115 kg. First pull. Deadlift movement, barbell breaking from floor. A triple extension of hips, knees, ankles is activated and she rises on her toes. Once the bar moved above her knee, she rotated her elbows into the front rack position and rested the metal on her shoulder blades. Torso leaning forward, legs split, heels digging into the floor, she dipped her knees and hips a little to generate a spring-like effect for the final act of driving the bar overhead. Pain and focus smelted into a grimace. A few quivering heartbeats later, she held up the barbell, the weight of an adult giant panda bear. The creases disappeared from her face and her lips parted to reveal a wide smile that reached her eyes. A first-ever silver weightlifting medal for India was certain.

Attempt 3: 117 kg. Hunt for an Olympic record. She teetered to her left as the barbell rose above her shoulders, losing her balance. The metal crashed to the floor and she dropped to her knees. Her face crumpled in dismay and she hung her head, unhappy with herself. Cumulatively, her best snatch and clean and jerk attempts had totalled 202 kg. Over four times her body weight.

You’re still going home with a silver she may have reminded herself, as she jumped up on her feet, beaming and waving with both hands. The 4’11” lifter then darted back to her team and threw her arms around her waiting, hulking coach. She hovered a little over waist-level, hugging his trunk. Both knew what the other was thinking. Only one strung the words in time. Humara sapna poora ho gaya (Our dream has been fulfilled), the one with the silver medal, spoke between snuffles. A nation three and a half hours away woke up to the Olympics and its new genial hero of badass biceps, widest smiles and a titanium will that just wouldn’t give up.