"It is important for me to win. I am the first Indian to fight today. If I start well I can motivate the other boxers too."
Still drenched in sweat from the exertion of her bout, Mary Kom was explaining just how significant her victory over Japan's Tsubasa Komura on Tuesday was. In this particular incident, Mary was referring specifically to the six Indian boxers who also had semifinal bouts following hers at the Asian Championships. But she might well have been summarizing her entire career.
Only one other boxer would join her in the finals.Yet Mary wouldn't be done inspiring. On Wednesday she beat Hyang Mi Kim of North Korea by a 5-0 unanimous decision to add yet another gold to the treasure trove she has gathered over a 17-year-long career.
In the scheme of things, gold at the Asian Championships doesn't count for much. She has another four of them - the first of which was won 14 years ago. She also has five world championship gold medals. And of course, there is that Olympic bronze.
But there is significance to this prize. There had been an inevitability to her other victories. But going into the second half of her second decade of international competition doubts had begun to set in. In 2014 she failed to qualify for the Commonwealth Games. She said she would retire after the 2016 Olympics. She never even qualified.
The mother of three was done. Too much against her. Too old at 34. Too small to win at 51kg. She had been a natural 48kg fighter for much of her career. But there was no 48kg category in the Olympics. So she had forced herself to put on four kilos - nearly 10 percent of her body weight. It drained her of her speed. Indeed the last of her World title came when she competed in 48 kg at Bridgetown in 2010.
"Mary hates losing. And once she is motivated she makes sure to get what she wants"
Following Rio, there were distractions. She was nominated to become a Rajya Sabha MP. She would be appointed a governmental observer for the sport. She had her own boxing academy. She is a member of the athletes commission and had to fly out from Vietnam to Lausanne in Switzerland to attend a meeting of that body.
"I have been an active MP, I am attending Parliament regularly and despite that I trained hard for this championship. Since I am a government observer, I have to be present at meetings related to the running of the sport as well. I hope people realise how tough it is. I have been juggling so many roles. I am a mother too, I have three sons to take care of. I don't even know how I manage to pull it off sometimes," she told PTI. "It is difficult to come back because I have so many responsibilities," she said after her win.
These were unsubtle hints to throw in the towel.
That she didn't wasn't a surprise to those who know her. "If there's one thing you have learned about Mary Kom over the years, it is that you can't count her out. You don't want to tell her she can't do something" says Viren Rasquinha the CEO of OGQ that once sponsored her and now supports young athletes from her academy.
The International commonwealth federation threw in a lifeline. Last year, they decided to include 48kg as a category for Women's boxing. For all that Mary has won, a Commonwealth Games medal still eludes her. It was a no brainer that she would return.
Her return was far from smooth. In August, she would take part in her first international boxing tour in nearly a year and a half. Edenderry in Ireland would turn out to be far from the relaxed re-initiation it was supposed to be. Mary was expected to fight three friendly bouts but pulled a muscle after the first one. It only rekindled her desire all the more.
"You could make out that that loss really bothered her. Mary hates losing. And once she is motivated she makes sure to get what she wants," says an official with Boxing India, the Indian boxing federation.
In Vietnam, Mary tipped the scales inside 48kg. There was not a feather of fat on her. "I spoke to her a couple of days ago and she had a confidence that bordered almost on arrogance. It is remarkable. As a former athlete I know how hard it is to come back after leaving the sport. But it is just phenomenal how Mary can recover after children, after injuries and long breaks," said Rasquinha.
At 35, her biggest challenge is combating the unrelenting advance of time that looks to pin her down. In the finals of the Asian Championships, for the first time in many years Mary was forced to back up by an aggressive Hyang Mi Kim. Yet at no point did she fight with anything but utter calmness. Even as Kim advanced Mary counterpunched snapping her opponent's head back even sometimes when backpedaling.
At the end of nine minutes of action, Mary -- as she has on innumerable occasions in her career -- had her arm held aloft. Just what the future holds for her is uncertain. There will undoubtedly be a run at the Commonwealth title in a half a year's time. Yet knowing what she is capable of, few would want to limit her to just that. Mary is likely going to be sticking around and inspiring people for the foreseeable future.