Mirabai Chanu looks for Tokyo lift to ease Rio pain

Talking Tokyo: Mirabai Chanu (1:52)

The weightlifter will be looking to ease the pain of Rio with a podium finish at Tokyo (1:52)

When Mirabai Chanu steps up to make her first lift of the Tokyo Olympics, she will be prepared to lift over one and a half times her bodyweight off the ground in a single clean motion. That won't be the only burden on the shoulders of the 4'11", 49kg weightlifter from Imphal. She carries the additional pressure of knowing that she's one of India's strongest bets for an Olympic medal this year.

Weightlifting events rarely throw up surprises. Lifters know how much they are capable of lifting and what the rest of the field is. The numbers suggest that Mirabai, a former world champion in her discipline, should finish on the podium. This year, only the Chinese representative at the Olympics has lifted more than her in all competitions in the women's 49kg category. Competing on the first day of the Olympics, Mirabai knows that her first lift will determine not just how the rest of her competition goes but will also set the tone for India's overall campaign at Tokyo.

She's been in this position before. At Rio 2016, the then 21-year-old was once again competing on the first day of the Olympics, a favourite to finish on the podium then too. That prospect seemed even more of a certainty when the Chinese decided not to enter their gold medal favourite into the event. Perhaps the pressure of competing in her first Olympics got to Mirabai. She failed in her first two lifts in snatch, and just about made her third attempt. But by then her confidence was shot. In the second half of the competition - the clean and jerk, Mirabai crashed out of the competition without a single clean lift.

"When I went to the platform, I knew what I was supposed to do. Tighten my back, focus on the second pull. But when I had to do it, everything went wrong. I didn't know what I was supposed to do there. Everything seemed like a blur. It's like preparing a speech for several years and when you go on the stage, you have forgotten your lines," she recalls.

That result seemed to have a chilling effect on the rest of the contingent too - it was only in the final couple of days that India got their only two medals of the Games.

It was the lowest period of Mirabai's professional career. "I cried all the way from the stadium to my room. My teammate and coach kept telling me that I would have another chance but I've never had a worse feeling than that moment," she says.

In Tokyo, Mirabai Chanu will have her chance of redemption. And like Rio, much will depend on how she starts in the snatch event.

The snatch ratio issue

There is a formula to this. Among elite weightlifters the ideal ratio is that the snatch lift should be between 78 to 82 percent of the clean and jerk. China's Hou Zhihui, the favourite for gold and Mirabai's primary contender in Tokyo, lifted 96kg in the snatch - about 82 percent of her clean and jerk lift of 117kg - at this year's Asian Championships. At the 2019 Asian Championships where once again she won gold, Zhihui lifted 92kg in the snatch - around 78 percent of the 116kg she lifted in the clean and jerk.

Mirabai, on the other hand, has often found herself having to make up for ground she's lost in the snatch event. At the 2021 Asian Championships, where she won bronze, Mirabai's snatch of 86kg was just 72 percent of her clean and jerk - a world record 119kg. At the 2019 Asian Championships, her snatch (86kg) was 76.1 percent of her clean and jerk of 113kg. Her best ratio - 85kg snatch and 109kg clean and jerk (a ratio of 77.98 percent) came at the 2017 World Championships, where she won gold in the absence of China.

What has made Mirabai such a successful weightlifter is largely her clean and jerk lift - where innate strength is much more important than technique - think the difference between a batsman who can play a late cut for four and another who can slog sweep for six at will.

Mirabai has always had natural strength. The daughter of an agricultural worker in village near Imphal, physical labour in the fields was expected of children her age. But Mirabai still stood apart. When she was a 12-year-old, she would often heft huge bundles of kindling wood on her shoulders -- far heavier a load than even her adult brother would be able to lift.

Inspired by Kunjarani Devi -- fourth place finisher at the Athens Olympics -- she insisted on becoming a weightlifter herself. Coaches noticed her strength and untaught comfort under heavy weight as well. "She is very explosive and completes her entire movement very fast. She gets under the bar very quickly, which is extremely important. She has a great sense of making sure the bar's centre of gravity is between her feet. The other lifters have the bar falling forward or to the back or on one side. This makes it very hard for them," says coach Anita Chanu.

Even more effusive praise comes from Kunjarani Devi who would later work at the National camp in Patiala with Mirabai. Kunjarani would gush about the new lifter from Manipur who ended up breaking all her records in the 48kg class. "Mirabai is one of those lifters that you get once in a generation," she had said in 2016 well before the youngster had even become a world champion.

But while there's no doubt that she belongs at the highest level, her snatch lift held her back from being an elite lifter.

While Mirabai holds the world record for the clean and jerk in her division, her best snatch lift has been equalled or bettered by five other competitors who will be travelling to Tokyo. While the weight lifted by Mirabai in the clean and jerk has steadily increased, her snatch lifts appear to have stagnated.

This suggests that as Mirabai has been getting stronger, shortcomings in the more technical lift have prevented her from lifting the kind of totals she's capable of. While she's always managed to compensate for her middling snatch lifts in the clean and jerk, there is a realisation that each time she misses her opening snatch, it adds pressure on her for the remainder of her lifts. At a high-pressure scenario like the Olympics, the consequences could be decisive.

Mirabai is aware of this too. "I've always known that the clean and jerk is my better movement. But I also know that my snatch has to get better. I have less confidence over my snatch compared to the clean and jerk. My snatch lift isn't bad but it's a mid-level snatch. The snatch sets the stage for the remaining lifts. You can make up on a bad snatch in the clean and jerk, but you want to get to a good start," she says.

Finding symmetry

It is with the intention of bridging the gap between her snatch and clean and jerk lifts that Mirabai is currently training in St. Louis in the U.S. under Dr. Aaron Horschig, a former national-level weightlifter. He is now one of the foremost physiotherapists, having worked with the Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Football League (NFL), footballers and Olympic weightlifters.

The two have been working for several months now. But before working on sharpening her technique, Mirabai had sought his consultation for the intermittent back pain she'd been suffering since 2018, which was preventing her from training consistently. Within a few hours of working together, Horschig had diagnosed the underlying mobility issues that had been causing the ailment.

While Mirabai had set a new record in the clean and jerk, her snatch was still not where it should be. In fact, she had nearly crashed out of the competition after missing her first two snatch lifts. And even though she made her third attempt, she felt pain in her shoulder.

Back in St. Louis, Horschig had worked out the matter. While it might be seen as a sport purely of power, Horschig says it is as much one of symmetry. "In many other sports -- Baseball, cricket or golf -- it's very normal to develop small asymmetries. There will always be one side more dominant than the other. But weightlifting is a very dominant bilateral movement. Any asymmetry results in a less than optimal performance and also increases the risk of injury," he says.

Horschig concluded that Mirabai's snatch technique lacked symmetry. He observed the movements of Mirabai's shoulder blades in relation to her arms and noted the right shoulder blade was moving out of sync with the left. "Optimally, when you move your arms out to your side, the shoulder blades should sit at about five degrees of upward rotation. They do so to provide a platform for the shoulders making the vertical press out (lifting the bar overhead)," he says.

With Mirabai, Horschig observed that rather than rotating upwards, her right shoulder blade pulled in and then moved upwards. "Think of your shoulder blades as two runners running the 100m. Instead of two runners starting from the same position, the right shoulder blade was like a runner starting 5 metres behind the start line. It was in a suboptimal position to start". As a result, rather than sharing the load equally, Mirabai's left arm was doing the lion's share of the lifting - and limiting the amount of weight she could safely put on her snatch.

Horschig's solution was to help Mirabai consciously work to mobilise her rhomboid muscle (a slender group of fibres that connect the shoulder blade to the spine) before her workouts. "Once they were activated, Mirabai has been able to develop a more synchronous upward rotation of the shoulder blades," he says.

The achievement of symmetry is a development Horschig is proud of. "It was like discovering the missing puzzle piece. When Mirabai's eyes got big and I knew we had found an 'ahaa!' moment. That's when we know the athlete can reach her true potential," he says.

Just what might that potential be?

In Mirabai's own words, if she makes six clean lifts, she will be fighting for the title. Should Mirabai lift even at the lower end of the ideal snatch/clean and jerk ratio, she would cross the 90kg mark for the first time in her career and almost certainly finish on the podium.

Things could still go wrong, just as they did in Rio. For now, though, Mirabai is reassured she's given herself the best chance to succeed. The work she has put in tweaking her snatch lift over the past few months has been showing results in training and she believes it will have an impact in Tokyo. "In snatch, my confidence used to be less than what it used to be in the clean and jerk. But I'm a lot more confident now. When I get to the platform, I know that the weight I am lifting is something I have done many times in training. There is another confidence that comes from knowing that is an easy weight for me. I'm a lot more relaxed now than I was in Rio. I'll still back myself in the clean and jerk but if I make that first lift cleanly, my mind will feel free," she says.