Path to Paris: Mirabai Chanu goes back to basics for a shot at second Olympic medal

Mirabai Chanu lifting VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images

On October 2, 2023, Mirabai Chanu, one of India's greatest lifters, landed in New Delhi from Hangzhou, where she'd competed in the Asian Games.

A freak injury had cut short her participation in the event; she had to be carried off stage and here, at the airport, she suffered the ignominy of being pushed in a wheelchair. There was a crowd of fans at the airport but - unlike two years earlier when Mirabai returned from Tokyo with her Olympic medal - they ignored her and gathered around the hugely successful shooting contingent, who'd returned on the same flight.

"I was really upset," she tells ESPN, looking back on that day. "When you win medals, everyone shows up, but when you don't, no one is there. I came back with such difficulty; I was not even able to walk. Yet no one came to help or even bothered about us. It felt very bad."

And that's when Project Paris came into play. "I thought, 'The next time I come to India from a major event, I will have a medal around my neck'."

There's more at stake, even though Mirabai herself may not admit it. With an Olympic silver, a World Championship gold and silver, and two Commonwealth Games golds, Mirabai is already India's most successful weightlifter. Paris is a not only a chance for her to rubber stamp her credentials, but a second Olympic medal will elevate her among India's all-time greatest athletes, a conversation she does not (unfairly so) usually feature in.

Can Mirabai do it? Can she banish the ghosts of Hangzhou, ignore the relative lack of competitive lifting in the recent past, and hold her own in a strong field?

Her path to Paris is far from ideal - just three competitions and a spate of injuries in 18 months - but her track record shows that whenever she's thrown a curveball, she's found a way to come back stronger. What makes Mirabai special, and could bring her that second Olympic medal, is her ability to look past everything, cramps, injuries, pain, and the competition around her, to just focus on those six lifts.


Breaking down, building it back

There isn't a body part that a weightlifter does not activate when executing a lift. It begins with the palms and wrists gripping the barbell, then the heels and ankles begin the lift before a push from the knees and quadriceps. The hamstrings, glutes, and lateral muscles kick in next to launch the weight off the ground. The hip joint fires up at this point to stabilize the weight before the extended shoulders launch the weight into the air.

That's the biomechanics of one lift - and Mirabai does that over 50 times on a training day, roughly 200 times a week.

The numbers are staggering: let's take a look at the squat for example. Mirabai's lifting range is between 95-130kgs. Let's say she does a total of five sets with five repetitions each with a progressive overload on the weights. Her workout log would look like this - 95x5 + 100x5 + 110x5 + 120x5 + 130x5. That would be a total load of 2,775kgs in just the squat.

Combine this with lifts across snatch, clean and jerk, plus strengthening exercises and Mirabai's daily total works out to 12,000 kg - the weight of five Mercedes G Wagons, or a 17-foot six-wheeler truck. (For context: Virat Kohli's bat weighs around 1.2kgs. For him to be able to lift as much weight as Mirabai in a day, he would have to face 10,000 deliveries; Kohli played a total of 3072 deliveries in 2023.)

That means Mirabai, who weighs 49kg and has a 4-foot 11-inch frame, lifts 244 times her bodyweight during an average training session.

It has naturally taken a toll on her body; she's injured her wrist, shoulder, lower back, and most recently her hip. In 2023, Mirabai competed in two events for a total of only four successful lifts out of a possible 12, which were accompanied by a couple of injuries.

The Asian Games injury was the most significant, and the most traumatic. Mirabai went to Hangzhou desperately seeking that Asiad medal, the one missing top-line honour in her glittering cabinet.

Halfway through the event, attempting a 117kg clean and jerk lift, she fell on her back, clutching her right leg. Unable to get up, she was carried off the lifting podium by her coach Vijay Sharma. That would be her last event for six months.

"I clearly remember that day...I was in severe pain but I fought past it because I wanted that medal. I knew if I completed that lift then the medal was mine. An Asian Games medal was my dream. I missed out in 2018 due to a back injury and then in this one too...all because of injuries. I don't know what happens at the Asian Games to me [wry laugh]. It was the first time in my life that I had to be carried off the stage..."

"That was an unusual injury, we did not see it coming," Coach Sharma says. "If it was a major injury [she felt discomfort during the warmups], she would not have lifted even once. But that muscle in her right leg was not supporting her after a point. If we had passed one more snatch, we may have had the medal. It was just fate I suppose."

Sharma let her go through the emotional process and then they switched gears and got into Paris mode; they decided to consult Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala, the "miracle man" for injured Indian athletes. Then in January, Mirabai and Sharma made the trip to Dr Aaron Horschig's gym in St Louis, Missouri.

There, in a familiar setting (Horschig had worked with her before the Tokyo Olympics too) Mirabai began the process of finding her way back to the lifting podium. For the five months post the Asian Games, she had focussed only on conditioning exercises and upper-body workouts. There was no work done on the lower body, which is also a crucial power source for a weightlifter.

"Bilkul bhi weight nahi uthaya, main weightlifting se door thi. Poora chhod diya tha lower body. [I did not practice weightlifting at all, I had completely let go of lower body training."

In St. Louis, Mirabai had to learn to squat from scratch. For someone who could squat 150kgs for 10+ repetitions, she now had to begin with free squats to then an empty bar. Five months later, Mirabai can rep out 135kgs today.

"The hip was our main concern during her last stay in St. Louis," Horschig tells ESPN. "When she arrived, she could not squat over 80kg without severe pain in her right hip [which is a very light weight for her]. My evaluation uncovered that she had a small imbalance on her right side that was leading certain parts of her leg to be overloaded and painful," he says.

The treatment focussed on correcting the imbalance and targeting greater glute muscle activation. "As this imbalance decreased, we then slowly re-exposed her to more and more load within lifts such as the squat. Before she left, she was able to squat 105kg for 20 repetitions without pain," notes Horschig.

"Weightlifting is a blend of both brute strength and the art of dance. Some call it 'ballet with a barbell'." Aaron Horschig

The feeling of squatting with a stacked bar was pure joy for Mirabai. "It made me feel like 'yeah, I am finally back.' Staying away from training is so difficult for an athlete," she says.

Having fixed the issue in her hip, Mirabai returned to competition after a six-month injury layoff at the IWF Weightlifting World Cup on April 1. She finished 11th in the field with a modest total of 194kgs [81kgs snatch + 113kgs in clean and jerk].

It was far from her personal best of 207kg [88kgs snatch + 119kg in clean and jerk], but the priority here was not lifting heavy, it was to book her ticket to Paris and to give her the confidence of lifting again in an international competition.


In Patiala, preparing for Paris

The IWF World Cup also gave Mirabai a check of where she stood among her competitors and what she had to do to get battle-ready. She returned to the NIS Patiala and under coach Sharma's watchful eyes, began a comprehensive training regimen aimed specifically at Paris.

The Paris regimen includes three "loading days" - Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays - where Mirabai has a mobility session in the morning before a total of five and a half hours of weight training split across the morning and evening. She lifts an average of 12,000kgs on each of these days, while on the three "de-load days" (Sundays are holidays) she does around 6,000kgs.

Key to the training is the diet plan. Mirabai's breakfast is usually boiled stuff like eggs, mushrooms, vegetables, potatoes and sometimes dalia. Lunch is seafood and salad - maybe boiled or grilled salmon/pomfret along with some dal for protein. Dinner is red meat and vegetables.

It echoes the adage that "athletes don't have taste buds". Most of her food is boiled and bland. "Aadat hogaya hai [I've become used to it]. I don't think about if it's tasty or not, I just know that if I eat this I will recover faster," she says.

Mirabai consumes around 1500-1600 calories a day and burns over double of that during workouts. That plays a huge role in keeping her weight in check, which is usually at 50kgs. That's one kilogram more than the stipulated weight in her category. Having just 1kg more makes the weight cut easier before competitions and also ensures she does not lose strength when cutting weight.

"Even now, when I am not competing, I maintain my weight around 50kgs. This is so that all the strength and endurance training I have done does not go away when I cut weight. For example, if I increase my body weight and improve my strength, I will lose it when I cut weight again."

To a lay person, the obvious question would be: how does a lifter lift more weight when there is no room to put on more muscle, given the tight weight constraints?

"I focus a lot on strength, endurance, diet, fitness and technique," says Mirabai. "Strength and endurance are the most important, that's how to lift more weight. I do 90-120 minutes of strength training twice a day in the gym to boost my strength."

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Coach Sharma says it takes time, but the body eventually adapts to lifting weights heavier than itself. Technique is the other component of top-level training and Sharma and Horschig both believe that better technique equals to more weight. As Sharma says, it's not only about lifting heavy but also about "how you lift it." Even a tiny tweak could prove to be disastrous in a sport like weightlifting.

"Small imbalances can easily create problems with technique and lead to missed lifts and, if left unchecked, can lead to injury," Horschig says.

He pulls out a poetic phrase for the sport: "Weightlifting is a blend of both brute strength and the art of dance. Some call it 'ballet with a barbell'. A great weightlifter is not only strong - but must have an amazing technique to move such heavy weights with such precision."

Sharma now has one clear goal for Mirabai ahead of the Olympics: to stay injury-free. "You can take precautions, but errors can always creep in. An injury occurs when the load goes to the wrong muscle some 10-odd times. But not every lift can be at a perfect angle when you lift twice your body weight, there is always scope for an injury. Every single lifter bears this risk. Sabhi yeh ladai ladte hain [every lifter fights this fight]," says Sharma.

"Performance ki koi tension nahi hai [we're not tense about her performance], we know she can pull it off. She's already done 205kgs in training, we just need to repeat that to medal at the Olympics," he says with conviction.


The numbers (and nuances) behind winning an Olympic medal

That medal. Mirabai has already shown in the past that she can overcome any obstacles, deal with any kind of setback, to get the medal she wants.

After managing just one clean lift at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she bounced back to win the 2017 World Championships and 2018 Commonwealth Games. Injury ruled her out of the 2018 Asian Games, but she set national records in both lifts at the 2019 Worlds.

The 2021 Asian Championships was her first competition in two years - there, she set a world record in the clean and jerk [119kgs] to win bronze. It set her up perfectly for the Tokyo Olympics.

At Tokyo, she had to fight severe menstrual cramps the day before her event, while also having to cut weight. But she fought it off, on a diet of oats and bananas, to win silver. At the World Championships in 2022, she battled a buckling wrist to hoist 113kgs in her final clean and jerk attempt to win silver.

For Paris, Mirabai and Sharma will travel to La Ferté-Milon in Northern France a month before the Olympics. "The time difference is four and half hours, but it will take us a week to get acclimatized to that. We won't be able to adjust if we go later. The atmosphere of training is also very important. These two are main factors before a major competition," notes Sharma.

The numbers favour Mirabai too: only three lifters have crossed the 200kg mark in 2024. North Korea's Ri Song Gum at 221kgs [97kgs snatch and 124kgs C&J] and the Chinese pair of defending Olympic champion Hou Zhihui 217kgs [97kgs snatch and 120kgs C&J] and four-time world champion Jiang Huihua 208kgs [94kgs snatch and 118kgs C&J].

"I'm looking at a 90kg lift in the snatch and around 115kg in clean and jerk." Mirabai Chanu on Paris Olympic goal

But don't three lifters with better lifts mean the medal positions are beyond her? That's when things get interesting: only one of these three lifters will be in Paris as North Korea's lifters aren't allowed to compete and only one of either Zhihui or Huihua can compete at the Games since only one lifter per nation is permitted in each weight division.

That puts Mirabai in good stead for another medal and she has already identified a target total, in the range of 200-210kgs, which she believes will be enough. It's not too daunting a total - she has crossed the 200kgs mark four times in her career - and has frequently gone past it in training too.

To go beyond that total comfortably, she's working on improving her snatch, which has traditionally been the weaker of her two lifts. The snatch requires perfect technique and form, as the barbell must be lifted off the ground and hoisted above your shoulders in one swift movement. It's imperative for Mirabai to increase her snatch as three more lifters are currently around the 90kg mark.

"The snatch is very important because, at the end of the snatch round itself, we'll have a clear idea of how the medals will go, who is likely to win what. That's why it makes the snatch so important to get three clean lifts," says Mirabai.

"I'm looking at a 90kg lift in the snatch and around 115kg in clean and jerk. I'm focussing more on snatch because my technique is a little weak and I need to improve it. I've lifted 90kgs twice in training and I want to regularly be able to do that because that will then translate to a similar lift during competition."


It's all a long way from her village of Nongpok Kakching in Manipur, where Mirabai's love affair with lifting began in unusual circumstances: by carrying home the firewood she and her family would collect from nearby forests. "We had to go really far to collect wood and we had to bring it all back that same day," she recalls. As the bundles got heavier, her family realised she had a special talent.

"I went to the lifting hall, and I fell in love with the sport...I feel that it was my luck or kismat that I would go into weightlifting and make a name for myself." Mirabai Chanu

Inspired by the stories of Kunjarani Devi and Anita Chanu, who were also from villages in Manipur, Mirabai went to the Khaman Lampak sports centre, where she was immediately smitten. "I went to the lifting hall, and I fell in love with the sport...bohot saare log chilla chilla kar training kar rahe the, utha rahe the weights [so many people were screaming while lifting weights] and I also wanted to do it. I started there under Anita ma'am, who took me under her wing right away. I feel that it was my luck or kismat that I would go into weightlifting and make a name for myself," she says.

Seventeen years on from her first visit to the lifting hall, Mirabai has carved her name in India's sporting history. Now, as she prepares to lift her even higher, she is also able to take a step back and see how far she has come.

"Looking back now, I honestly find it hard to believe how far I have come. There was never a point when I ever thought I would be where I am today. It wasn't even a dream. All I wanted to do was train and win medals. And here I am today."