Tuesday, Dec 26, 2023

After year spent in dealing with one injury after another, weightlifter Mirabai Chanu still looks ahead to possible route to Paris Olympics podium

Back, shoulder, thigh, wrist, hip – nothing has diluted Olympic medallist resolve to raise the bar higher for an encore next year

Olympic silver medallist weightlifter Mirabai Chanu has had a year spent dealing with one injury after another.Olympic silver medallist weightlifter Mirabai Chanu has had a year spent dealing with one injury after another. (PHOTO: Mirabai Chanu via X)

For some of India’s top stars, 2023 was the year when they had to pause, reflect and reboot. In some cases, to recover from injuries; in a few others, to rediscover lost form. All in the hope that when the big day comes, they’ll be ready and recharged for the challenge

All Mirabai Chanu offers when asked to recap her 2023 is stony silence.

Vijay Sharma, her coach, manages a few words. Although they might not be too flattering. “Bohut hi bekaar (very bad),” the Dronacharya awardee, who transformed Mirabai from just another weightlifter to an Olympic silver medallist, despondently admits.


It’s been that kind of a year for Mirabai. One where she has spent as much time, if not more, on the surgeon’s table and sitting before a psychologist as she has lifting weights and defying gravity, which she so gracefully does. One where she has endured more injuries than the number of competitions she’s participated in.

In the last 12 months, India’s top lifter – and the only medal hope from the sport at the Paris Olympics – lifted weights in just two events. And during this period, her body snapped as many times.

Festive offer

The wrist, the shoulder, the back and the hip, combined with the thigh, have all troubled Mirabai so much that even her mind – which remains stubborn and strong when the 4-foot-11-inch 49kg pocket-sized dynamo lifts iron more than twice her weight – started playing games.

“It’s been tough,” Mirabai broods. “I wonder sometimes why is this happening? Did I do anything wrong? Or is it something else? These thoughts do occur. But we are constantly on the lookout for ways to cure this.”

Mirabai Chanu


The hunt for a cure took Mirabai and Sharma far beyond the secure and familiar training environment in Patiala to a physiotherapist’s lab in the United States and a surgeon in Mumbai. Thus, the project to ‘fix’ Mirabai Chanu was relaunched.

Her build-up to the Tokyo Olympics was overshadowed by a ‘mysterious’ back injury. As the Paris Games approach, Mirabai finds herself in a race against time yet again.

Deja vu.

Dire it might seem but trust Mirabai, with an easy, infectious laughter, to dismiss the concerns nonchalantly. “Ho jaega (It’ll be okay),” she says. “Just a professional hazard.”


‘One truckload of training’

What Mirabai calls a professional hazard is described half-jokingly as ‘inhuman’ by Sharma.

For close to a decade, once or sometimes more often in a week, Mirabai has been lifting close to ‘one truckload’ of weight. That is her maximum training load, which is calculated as the total value of the number of sets, repetitions and weights.

Last year, after Mirabai defended her Commonwealth Games title in Birmingham, two-time CWG gold medallist Sathish Sivalingam explained what her body goes through each time she lifts the barbell.

“When someone like Mirabai, who is 49kg, holds a barbell weighing 119 kg (her best lift in the clean-and-jerk segment) to her throat, how do you breathe? The entire body goes numb,” Sivalingam, a former national and CWG record holder, had said. “It’s insanely tough.”


Sharma goes a step further and gives a peek into what goes on behind the scenes daily so that on competition day, Mirabai can make jaws drop.

“For years, she has lifted hundreds of kilos in training every day,” Sharma says. “That eventually takes a load on your body. When we talk about injuries and fitness, it is very important to understand this side of our sport – daily we are punishing our bodies.”


So high are the standards in training that they don’t even count anything less than 70 per cent intensity. “There’ll be three snatch lifts, around 90 kg each, followed by three clean-and-jerk lifts, 110 kg at least. And then, you rest and repeat. We programme these high-intensity sessions based on our recovery,” Sharma says.

Mirabai might have Popeye-like strength, but lifting iron each day has left her bruised.


In 2020, when American physiotherapist Aaron Horschig evaluated her – Mirabai at the time couldn’t lift even half the load she normally would – it read something like this: Right shoulder instability and weakness; left shoulder mobility restrictions; left hip mobility and stability problems; backache… the list was endless.

Injured hip and shoulder

Dr. Dinshaw Pardiwala, who has the trust of India’s top athletes to fix their broken bodies and torn muscles, calls Mirabai’s load-bearing capacity ‘exceptional’. “(But) there’s also a fine balance. Slight issue here and there, and you end up with an injury. That’s the nature of the sport,” Pardiwala says.

“Mira has had a slew of injuries one after the other. The main thing in weightlifting is that especially when you are a low-weight category lifter, you are lifting loads way beyond your body weight. When you are doing that, you are pushing your body to the absolute limit. In this scenario, in other sports like cricket, performing at 80-90 per cent might be okay as your skill levels offset fitness. But in weightlifting, unless you are absolutely 100 per cent there is no way,” Pardiwala explains.

That’s what was happening to Mirabai when she first met him in September. She could pull off lifts up to 80-90 per cent of her capability but when she had to go all out, the muscles wouldn’t take the load.

Since September, Mirabai – through Olympic Gold Quest – has met Pardiwala four times in person apart from monitoring her progress every week.

When she first met him, Mirabai complained of pain in the right side of her hip. “She had a tear in a muscle in her right hip, which runs down the thigh. There are convertible muscles there and the muscles in the hip are very important when you come up from a deep squat position. It’s a position that may not give you pain while standing but to rise from a deep squat, you have to use that muscle a lot,” Pardiwala explains.

By the end of October, the hip injury had healed. But then, Mirabai’s shoulder gave up. “Again a bad injury for a weightlifter primarily because there’s a muscle – the rotator cuff – that enables strength in the shoulder,” Pardiwala says.

It’s a layer of muscles, the doctor adds, that allows the shoulder to stabilise ‘so that the larger muscles like the deltoid, the power muscles, can do their job’.

Unfortunately for Mirabai, the rotator cuff is torn. It’s a relatively small tear that won’t need surgery, Pardiwala assures. But it’s serious enough to keep her away from doing what she loves the most – lifting weights.

“With these tears, best is to rest it out initially; allow it to heal because they are traumatic tears. Once they heal, you increase the load and as loads increase, you get to normalcy. She is at a stage right now when you rest it out. She has a good amount of clinical healing there and is meeting all her goals of rehab well,” Pardiwala says.

With the physio monitoring ‘each and every step’, Mirabai hasn’t been lifting ‘truckloads’ in training. But she still has to do basic strength and conditioning work so that when she’s eventually ready to lift, the body can cope with the increase in workload.

Target: 207kg

Amidst all this, what keeps Mirabai and Sharma relatively relaxed is the fact that she has already qualified for the Olympics. Her best effort of lifting a total of 200kg, at the World Championship last December, has placed her second in the Olympic Qualification Ranking.

So, unlike most Indian athletes whose first task will be to secure a place in the Paris-bound contingent, this gives Mirabai the freedom to focus on her rehab for the next seven months.

“It’s a good thing I have qualified,” she says. “For most, the biggest quest, a source of tension, is to qualify for the Olympics. So I am glad that’s worked out already for me.”

Sharma says the year has made them wiser, especially in terms of their training routines. He understands the pitfalls of over-training better but none of this has stopped him and Mirabai from plotting the path to the podium in Paris.

They have set themselves a target – 207kg, 5kg more than what she lifted at the Tokyo Olympics. If she manages that, Mirabai will remain in contention to defend her silver medal given the Chinese weightlifters are still way ahead, as seen at the World Championships this year.

The two Chinese – Jiang Huihua and Hou Zhihui – lifted 215 and 211kg respectively but since a country can field just one lifter in a weight category, a fit Mirabai is confident of putting up a fight.

“In the next seven months, we have to protect ourselves and take us to the range of 207 kg so that we can put up a proper fight. We have to reach that level,” Sharma says. “We are wise now. We know what has happened, what can happen and what we need to do. If we are careful in training, we will be okay.”

First published on: 26-12-2023 at 11:21 IST
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