Mary Kom's gold medal at the Asian Championships in November last year might have been only a small mention in a staggeringly long list of career achievements but it was significant all the same. At 35, Mary was easily the oldest boxer in the Indian squad that travelled to Vietnam. Additionally, she was only just making her return to the sport after over a year. Having last boxed competitively in her bid to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Mary had seemingly settled into a non-sporting role. 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 in Imphal. She was a member of an athletes' commission. In the midst of all of this, she also had to balance her role as a mother to three young children.
Mary's return well past what might have been considered the twilight of her career wasn't the only one of its kind in 2017. Freestyle wrestler Sushil Kumar also returned to competition in November that year, after -- as in the case of Mary -- failing to qualify for the Rio Olympics. Sushil, 34, who like Mary also balanced governmental roles -- he, too, is an observer for the sport -- with his family life, first took gold at the Wrestling Nationals in November and then claimed the Commonwealth Wrestling Championships in South Africa.
The fact that Mary and Sushil -- two of India's most accomplished Olympians -- are competing (and winning) where most of their contemporaries have retired is truly remarkable.
They aren't the only two athletes to have tried. Anju Bobby George, who attempted to make a comeback following a lengthy break in order to qualify for the London Olympics, says the challenges are immense. "You have to be an exceptional athlete to do it," she says. "Once you leave the sport it is nearly impossible to get back to competing at a high standard. For most of us, your body won't even react if we wanted to. Athletes like Sushil and Mary are exceptional. That's why they can manage it. Most people simply don't have the drive or even the natural ability to make a comeback after a long break."
In the case of both Mary and Sushil, neither determination nor pure ability could be questioned. Both were highly motivated after being subject to criticism that they were over the hill. "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 Olympic Gold Quest, that once sponsored her and now supports young athletes from her academy.
Both also had a specific target in mind: the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. For Mary, it would be her debut in the tournament. Women's boxing wasn't a part of the 2010 Games while she had been pipped to a spot on the team roster after losing to Pinki Jangra in the trials to select the squad for the 2014 Games. For Sushil, a gold at the Commonwealth Games would be the perfect way to draw a close to a career that had spanned nearly as long as Mary's but that had come under a dark cloud following an unseemly controversy in which another Indian wrestler tested positive for steroid use.
But motivation isn't the only thing that's limited to a few athletes. Sports physiotherapist Nikhil Latey reckons both Mary and Sushil are simply gifted in a way that allows them to recover from injuries faster than others. "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.
The ravages of age are particularly extreme in combat sports such as wrestling and boxing. However, both athletes and coaches managed a workaround for the stresses their body was undergoing. The return from a layoff to picking up where they left off is a slow process. "Oftentimes, younger athletes will get a small injury, will continue to train and make it worse," says Latey. "Mary 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."
Sushil too has adapted -- a proposition made even more difficult owing to the fact that he suffered an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) tear just after the 2016 Olympics. "He doesn't do as much training off the mat. All his efforts were in perfecting his technique on the mat," says a member of the camp at New Delhi's Chhatrasal Akhara, where Sushi has trained ever since he was a boy. The systematic return has helped. "Sushil might be 34 years old but he has the metabolic age of someone in his early 20s," says a physio who works closely with him.
What has helped both Mary and Sushil is that they have not had to stress their bodies any more than the minimum amount. Mary benefited from the fact that she was competing after a gap of seven years back in the women's 48kg division. The division didn't feature at the Olympics, which forced Mary to give up a height and power advantage in order to compete with women in the 51kg category. Sushil, meanwhile, was practising perhaps a couple of kilos off the weight he would fight in.
While both had to dig deep to find the initial motivation to make a comeback, once they returned to training, it was almost as if they had switched to autopilot. "Right now I would say, he is moving even better than he was when we were preparing for the 2016 Olympics," says Dr Munesh Shrivastava, a physio who has worked with Sushil for several years. The wrestler's international rivals, too, aren't expecting him to slack off. "Senior wrestlers like Sushil won't try to beat you with power now. Now they will use their experience and ring awareness against you," says Bekzod Abdurahmanov, who finished fifth in Sushil's weight division at Rio.
Mary is also raring to get into the fray once again at next month's Commonwealth Games. "She had a confidence that borders almost on arrogance," says Rasquinha. "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."