Fresh and weighty challenges for Mirabai Chanu in 2023

Two significant achievements marked Indian sporting success in 2022. Avinash Sable grabbed the headlines after breaching Kenya’s hegemony in men’s steeplechase, winning silver at the Commonwealth Games to break the African nation’s 1-2-3 going back to 1998. Woman weightlifter Mirabai Chanu breached a similar citadel, less publicised but equally significant.

Chanu calls it a “dream come true”. National coach Vijay Kumar Sharma terms it a “significant moment in Indian weightlifting”. We are talking about the weightlifting queen breaching Chinese domination to win silver at the World Championships in early December, a feat that promises a lot more as she heads into the crucial pre-Olympics year.

At Bogota’s Gran Carpa Americas Corferias in December, Chanu made her entrance to thunderous reception. Face glistening with sweat and gaze fixed on the iron bar, the Olympic silver medallist set herself up to lift 87kg in snatch.

Squat, snatch, lift—the drill sounds simple. Chanu, 28, would have internalised it through her career. But that day, under the lights focused on the lifting platform with the weight of a nation on her shoulders, Chanu’s wrist was playing a painful trick. It all boiled down to her iron will, literally and she finished with silver, pushing the Chinese Olympic champion to bronze.

Chanu’s biggest challenge in 2023 could be managing her fitness as the busy year could put her body under huge strain. “It’s part and parcel of our sport,” Sharma said. “We are not too fussed with injuries unless they are serious. Luckily, none of our lifters have a worrying concern.”

His calmness stems from the work US conditioning expert Dr Aaron Horschig has put in to fix Chanu’s multiple niggles, from shoulder to hips. The wrist injury was suffered in training after the Commonwealth Games. Chanu underwent brief rehabilitation under Dr Horschig in the weeks leading up to the Worlds. Once her wrist recovers, Chanu’s target will be to hit the elusive 90kg in snatch, a mark she has chased for at least a couple of years now.

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With a world record 119kg against her name, Chanu has little worry about clean and jerk. It is in snatch, which forms the first part of competition, that she is routinely tested. (In snatch, the barbell is picked and straightaway lifted above the head; in clean and jerk, the weight is brought to the chest and then raised). A personal best of 88kg can put her in medal contention, but with the heavy-lifting Chinese in her division, winning is a huge challenge. Chanu will thus have to add at least a couple of kg to address that.

Women’s weightlifting powerhouse China are the joint most successful nation in Olympics (tied with the erstwhile Soviet Union on 62 medals). They are leaders in Asian Games (128 medals; Iran, second, have 45 fewer), Asian Championships (491 medals, Iran and Kazakhstan are tied second with 165 each), and World Championships (317 medals, erstwhile Soviet Union won 274). They have led the weightlifting medal count at every Olympics this century.

Even at the recent Worlds where she pipped Olympic champion Hou Zhihui—the first time Chanu beat a Chinese—four lifters were better than her in snatch. Hou took bronze while her compatriot Jiang Huihua won gold with Chanu on the mid rung of the podium.

Chanu is aware of the issue. “It (2023) will be an important year. I am looking forward to remaining injury free. I also aim to get close to 90kg in snatch and better my clean and jerk world record (119 kg),” she said after her Worlds silver.

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“We’ve been working on tweaking her snatch technique a bit for a while now but this wrist condition has not allowed her to go all out,” Sharma had said in November. With the season for Indian lifters not starting until May, Chanu and Sharma have time to address technical and physical issues.

The competitive grind will begin at the Asian Championships in May—an Olympic qualifier— where Sharma plans to field a full-strength squad. Chanu won bronze (205kg) in the last edition in 2020, behind Hou (213kg) and Jiang (207kg).

The Bogota Worlds was the first of six qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The qualification rule makes it mandatory to compete at the 2023 World Championships and the 2024 World Cup.

Men battle injuries

Also on the comeback trail will be Jeremy Lalrinnunga (67kg) and Achinta Sheuli (73kg). They aced the Birmingham Commonwealth Games with record lifts but have been laid low by injuries since. Jeremy, who hurt his left elbow, has started training while Sheuli, who has a dodgy hamstring and couldn’t participate at the Worlds despite a three-week stint under Aaron Horschig before the event.

“Achinta pulled his hamstring on the day of his event, so we didn’t risk him. There are enough competitions in 2023 and I am sure he’ll do well,” Sharma said. “Jeremy resumed training last month but has not gone full tilt yet. There are some more scans that we are planning this month following which we will increase the training load.”

Lalrinnunga will move up to the Olympic division of 73kg, which will spark intense competition with Sheuli as they chase the Olympic berth.

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The coach also has a New Year’s wish for the sport’s administrators. “I’d like our scouting process to get more robust. Besides Mira and a handful of talented lifters, there is not much quality coming through.”

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