Mirabai Chanu burst into tears on top of the podium as the Indian anthem played at the Anaheim convention center. Just minutes before, the 23-year-old had become the first Indian in nearly a quarter of a century to win gold at the Weightlifting World Championships. By becoming the women's 48kg champion, she emulated Karnam Malleswari's achievement in 1995. With the medal still around her neck, Mirabai would explain her emotion. "Ek bojh sa hat gaya hai, (a weight has been lifted off me)" Mirabai said over a phone call.
It was an odd choice of words considering the nature of her sport and the magnitude of her achievement. At Anaheim, Mirabai had lifted a total of 194 kilos over two lifts. She first recorded a snatch of 85 kilos before lifting 109 kilos on her third attempt in the clean and jerk. The total was one more than Thunya Sukcharoen of Thailand. Mirabai's total lift was a new national record as was her clean and jerk number.
For Mirabai, who hails from Imphal, her effort would have gone some way to erase the memories of a disastrous performance a little over a year back at the Rio Olympics. The 23-year old had been considered India's best chance of winning a second medal after Karnam Malleswari's 2000 bronze. "She is a one in a generation talent," former World Championship medallist N Kunjarani Devi had said before the Olympics.
Heading into the competition, she had set a national record, with a total of 192kg, at the selection trials. At the Olympics, favourites China didn't register a competitor while the remaining lifters struggled on the day. Despite a near open shot at a medal, Mirabai froze on the big occasion. She lifted a sub par 82 in the snatch and missed all her clean and jerk attempts. As it turned out, her pre-competition lift of 192 kg would have been enough for a silver. The result devastated her.
"After the Olympics, she was very depressed. It was a big setback for all of us. We had been confident that she would medal. We had to slowly work to bring her into the mind to compete again," says national coach Vijay Sharma.
While there was little doubting her talent, Mirabai would repeatedly falter when it mattered the most. "We were always facing this difficulty. She was lifting these weights in practice, but she would not be able to perform in the competition. It was a problem in the mind as much as any technique," says Sharma.
At the Commonwealth Weightlifting Championships in October, Mirabai won gold with a total lift of 189kg with 85 in the snatch and 104 in the clean and jerk, but was again unsatisfied. "Even though she won the gold over there, she was not able to get the total we were planning. Mirabai was not able to make clean lifts. She missed one snatch and two lifts at 108 in the clean and jerk. It was very frustrating," says Sharma.
For much of Mirabai's career, she had found it hard to make three clean lifts in the clean and jerk - which requires lifters to catch the rising bar in a squat before pressing the weight above their shoulders.
"We worked really hard in removing the small mistakes. It took a long time but today Mirabai was able to lift it cleanly when it mattered," says Sharma.
Mirabai made three legal clean and jerk attempts, increasing the weight on the bar each time. The attempts were not the smoothest - her knees caved in during her 109 kilo attempt, but she controlled the weight to jerk it successfully - but more importantly they were legal.
Mirabai enjoyed a bit of luck going into the competition too. None of the three Olympic medalists were participating in the competition, while seven countries - including China, Kazakhstan and Russia - are serving one year bans for dope offences. Yet unlike in Rio, she was able to make her opportunities count.
The result gives Mirabai and her coach the hope that they have turned a corner. Their next goal is the Asian Games next year. While China will still be under the dope ban through the competition in Jakarta, neither coach nor athlete want to leave room for failure. "There is still room for improvement. Mirabai missed one of her snatch attempts so we could have lifted another two kilos. And I am confident she can lift another 2 kilos in the clean and jerk too. She should be able to lift close to 198 kilos which she will need to do to win a medal at the Asian Games," says Sharma.
And even though she is a world champion, Mirabai doesn't expect to be weighed down by expectation anymore. "There is no pressure on me. At one time there was. Now it is gone," she says.