Meet Linthoi Chanambam: India's first judo world champion across age groups

Linthoi Chanambam with her coach Mamuka Kizilashvili IIS

What is the story?

Linthoi Chanambam, 16 years old, won a gold medal at the World Cadet Judo Championship in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. She defeated Bianca Reis of Brazil 1-0 in the final of the 57kg category on Friday

Why's this special?

It's special for Indian sport, because Linthoi is the nation's first-ever judo world champion, across any age-group.

Who is Linthoi and how did she get into the sport?

Linthoi is from Mayang, Manipur and is currently part of Inspire Institute of Sport's (IIS) judo programme under head coach Mamuka Kizilashvili. She started the sport in 2014 and joined IIS' high performance training centre at Vijayanagar, Karnataka in 2017.

"My father is a farmer and my mother is a housewife. In my childhood, I always felt like a boy and not a girl, so I wanted to play active sports like football or boxing. My family has always been interested in sports. My house was near a (judo) academy, so my father used to take me there and that's how I started," Linthoi said during an interaction with journalists on Saturday.

Linthoi mentioned that judo is very popular in her village with the presence of 'two-three academies' near her. "I used to play football, boxing just for fun, but I wanted to play judo professionally."

Coach Kizilashvili spotted Linthoi during one of his scouting visits to her state. He decided to bring her to the IIS centre after seeing her performance at the sub-junior nationals which took place in Telangana. "I was visiting Manipur during one of our TIDs (Talent Identification Days)," he said. "When I went to Manipur I was really surprised because they have a good culture in judo. When I saw her, she was very young. I don't know...when you're a coach, you understand when you see an athlete's body structure, their skills, if they are able or not."

"And she was in a great age because at this age it's easy for them to change. After junior level, it's not possible for me to change. But at this age, you can make 99 percent changes and prepare them the proper way," he said.

How was her performance at the World Cadet Judo Championship?

Linthoi dominated her opponents and secured impressive victories. She made it to the final after four wins by clear ippons (an ippon is a move done that grants the athlete 10 points, and a straight win). The final was tough, though. This was mainly because her rival had better experience than her. "Two weeks before, [Reis] finished the Junior World Championships (a level above Cadet) in fifth place. That's a big, big achievement. If you compare her experience with Linthoi's, there's a big difference because she competes in maybe 15 international competitions. That is a lot in this age," Kizilashvili said.

Linthoi eventually prevailed and won the gold medal after scoring through waza-ari (moves that grant the second highest score possible, after ippon).

What are her past achievements?

In November 2021, Linthoi clinched the gold medal at the National Championships which took place in Chandigarh. Before travelling to Sarajevo, Linthoi participated in the Asian Cadet and Junior Judo Championships in Bangkok and also won a gold there.

Who is Linthoi's idol?

"There's one player, she's from Kosovo. Majlinda Kelmendi," Linthoi said. "She's the first athlete from Kosovo to win a gold medal at the Olympics (2016). So, I want to be the first Indian woman to win a gold medal at the Olympics."

What is next for her?

According to Kizilashvili, this year's targets were gold medals at the Asian and World cadet championships, which Linthoi has achieved. After a break, Kizilashvili is planning a training session with her in Europe.

"This year, I will make her fight with junior and senior athletes. Maybe at the end of this year, we will check her in one junior and senior competitions. Next year, we will try to compete in more junior and senior competitions to get qualifying points for the Olympics," Kizilashvili said.

"I don't want to push her if she's not ready. If I do that, there's a high risk of injury. If I see she's not ready, I will not push her to the senior level. Next year, we will plan after seeing the international calendar."