Mary Kom suffered an unexpected setback this July, at the Ulaan Baatar Cup where she was boxing in her first international competition in over a year. On the eve of her first bout, she twisted a back muscle. The injury did not come in training or as a result of taking a punch from an opponent. "She was simply sitting in one position for too long," an official with the Indian team recalls.
It hurt every time she twisted her torso. And while Mary willed herself to win her opening bout, she would lose her next. Her first tournament in her comeback by all accounts had gone poorly. The nature of her injury was yet another sign that after a 17-year-long boxing career, the ravages of time were fast catching up with her.
Yet just a few months later, it was a more familiar Mary that Indians saw - one standing on top of a podium.
At the Asian Championships in Vietnam, Mary had had all the answers in each of the bouts she had fought culminating in the one that saw a fifth Asian championship gold medal dangling around her neck. Yet one final question seemed to stump her.
How do you do it?
"I don't know how I pull it off sometimes," she answered.
How indeed was this 34-year-old, in the 17th year of her boxing career still competing? Moreover after an Olympic, six world and as many continental medals later, how was she still winning?
It seems petty to reduce Mary's contribution to Indian sporting history and a body of work as impressive as hers simply to longevity, but it is a tale that must be told. In a sport that by the sheer nature of its brutality chews up and spits out human flesh, Mary now finds herself competing alongside girls who she inspired to swing at the heavy bag for the first time in their lives.
Former Indian hockey captain Viren Rasquinha says he once sought this answer from another sporting Methuselah - Australian hockey player Jamie Dwyer. "Dwyer told me the secret was not taking a break. If you stop it's really hard to restart as you get older. Even in hockey it is so difficult to get back to international competition once you have taken a break. To do that in a sport as physically demanding as boxing is phenomenal," he says.
Yet Rasquinha, who has worked closely with Mary over the past half-decade knows this isn't the answer either. She has endured multiple breaks and distractions in her career that would have stopped most athletes in their tracks. Mary had twice put her career on hold in 2008 and 2012 after the birth of her children. In a sport where competitors deprive their own bodies to shred a few grams of body weight, Mary has twice ballooned and reduced her bodyweight.
"She avoided stressing her body and that's the reason she has stayed injury-free for so long."
In more recent times, she has been weighed down by official responsibilities, not the least being a member of parliament. "Quite simply she is a one in a generation athlete," says Dr. Nikhil Latey, a physiotherapist who worked with Mary for six years until 2016. Latey has trained with scores of elite Indian Olympic athletes, yet Mary stood out. "Mary has the best recovery compared to any other athlete I have worked with. That is just a god given gift she is born with," he says.
Case closed, then? Not exactly.
Mary is also a highly intelligent athlete who understands her body better than most. "She knows what she has to do and how to pace her recovery. Some athletes try to head back too fast. They set unreasonable targets and then get frustrated. But she knows the limits of her body and will defer to better judgement when she has to" Latey says.
Latey cites Mary's second comeback -- following the birth of her third child -- as an example. "Mary gave birth in May 2013 and returned to train ten months later. When I saw her after her delivery, she was nearly 75 kilos but she slowly reduced her weight. When she returned to train, she was 60 kilos and four weeks later she was back at her competition weight."
The fact that Mary has never made giant weight cuts has been key to her longevity. "She never had the nakhra (fuss) of some other boxers who had a natural bodyweight of 70 kilos and tried to compete at 57kg. She avoided stressing her body and that's the reason she has stayed injury-free for so long," Latey says.
Latey says the fact that Mary is competing once more in the 48kg category - the weight in which she won all her World Championships -- has possibly helped her extend her career. "Mary is a natural 48kg fighter. She had to move up to the 51kg category because that was the Olympic weight division. But here she was fighting boxers who were bigger and taller than she was." When Latey found out last year that the Commonwealth Games would introduce a 48kg division, he knew Mary would return for sure to claim the one medal that had eluded her.
Mary had not boxed since losing the Olympic qualifiers that year. And she had additional responsibilities too. In April she was nominated to be a Member of the Rajya Sabha and she was also running an academy in Imphal at that point. Yet this comeback was far easier for her than her previous two.
Former national champion boxer Chhote Lal Yadav kept tabs over the phone on her in Imphal as she continued to train. When she did return to the national camp in February this year, it looked like she had never left.
Training alongside competitors, some half her age, Mary stood out. "Her natural abilities are not the only reason for her success. She is mentally very strong and she works really hard. Really, really hard," Latey emphasises.
Aayush Yekhande, the physiotherapist of the Indian women's boxing team will vouch for that. "After she lost in Mongolia, all of us expected her to be a little down. The very next day, she was up early in the morning and had gone for a 10 km sprint by herself. She was training the same day. Mary doesn't know what it is to quit," he says.
"I could hear the emotion in her voice when she spoke on the phone with them. Then you see she isn't just a warrior but also a mother. But then ten minutes later she will be in the ring back to business and I would be scared of her."
While reemphasizing her fiercely competitive spirit, the experience in Mongolia also laid bare the limitations she had to deal with. "In the mid-thirties, the body, even of someone like Mary, will take time to recover. When other boxers would come to me with complaints of soreness and pain every three or four days, I would have to work with her after every session," he says.
This meant Mary would have to work harder than ever. "The morning session starts at 645 am. But Mary would have to come in at 6 am. We had to stretch her and have her do core exercises to prevent injuries. After training ended at 8 am, we would have to stretch her once again after the others had left," says Yekhande. Immediately after practice Mary would rush to attend sessions in parliament before returning for another training session in the evening.
"It was very painful. Too painful," Mary laughed at a press interaction on Thursday. "But that was my schedule. Luckily I didn't have an injury or an illness. That would have made it harder," she said.
Mary's job as an MP gave her one advantage though. It allowed her to stay outside camp and be close to her husband and three children. This had not been possible earlier. Latey recalls in his time with her, how this separation rather than training was the most difficult sacrifice she had to make. "I could hear the emotion in her voice when she spoke on the phone with them. Then you see she isn't just a warrior but also a mother. But then ten minutes later she will be in the ring back to business and I would be scared of her," says Latey.
Mary was in good place mentally when she headed to Vietnam. "I was nervous but I was confident before every competition," Mary said. The fact that she was in the best shape she had been in over a year boosted her further. "As long as I am fit, I cannot be stopped. I know no one can touch me," she said.
Despite her most recent triumph, the path ahead for Mary is a hard one. While few will doubt that she can check the box marked Commonwealth Games medal, she will have to return to the 51kg category if she is to compete at the Asian and Olympic Games. "There is no denying she isn't as fast as she was a decade ago. But she isn't carrying any extra weight and is in the weight she is most comfortable in. But one thing I have learned about Mary is that she doesn't do things half-heartedly. She doesn't box if she isn't thinking she is going to medal. As long as she is competing she gives it a hundred and twenty percent," Latey says.