Tokyo 2020: 'Mirabai is mentally more clear now than when she was in Rio'

Selvaraj: Unlikely that Mirabai fails to finish on the podium (2:56)

ESPN.in correspondent Jonathan Selvaraj on India's big medal hope in weightlifting Mirabai Chanu (2:56)

A few days ago, before Mirabai Chanu flew to Tokyo, she received a message and some advice from her first coach Anita Chanu. Although Mirabai has been part of the national camp for the last 10 years, she still trains with her senior namesake, under whom she first started her career as a 12-year-old, in Manipur.

The suggestion from her coach - a former international weightlifter and a Dhyan Chand award winner -- was not anything to do with her technique, though. Instead, India's representative in the women's 49kg weightlifting category - in addition to being a former world champion and one of the strongest medal hopefuls in the contingent--- was simply told to have fun.

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"I simply told her to stay relax. I told her not to think too much about the competition. I reminded her that she had lifted the weights she would lift at the Olympics many times previously," Chanu says.

Mirabai, she says, has the physical abilities in place. But to stand on the podium on Saturday, her mental endurance will be tested. When it was challenged five years ago in Rio, the then 22-year-old had faltered. "The days before the Olympics I could sense that things were not right with her. She was a little afraid of that competition. When your mind is filled with fear and anxiety, it has a negative impact on your performance. You lose so much energy in thinking about possibilities. When you step on the platform, and make your lift, it takes just a fraction of a second. And in that time your mind and body have to be as one. If your body does one thing and your mind does something else, it will not work."

Chanu recalls how that experience in Rio devastated the young lifter.

"She was absolutely in depression. I had to tell her, 'Mirabai tu abhi cha hai' (Mirabai you are a child). Your life will be like the mountains. There will be times when you do very badly but you will come up also. Forget the past. I have full faith in you."

Mirabai always had the fundamental attributes of mental strength. Her coach recognised it when as a 12-year-old girl she first approached her at the SAI academy in Imphal.

"Apart from the physical tests of sprints and squats and the body analysis, we also do a mental test before we let youngsters join. I asked Mirabai why she had come here. I expected her to say her parents had told her to come to train. But she told me she wanted to be a weightlifter. It was no ones choice but her own. And that was something that stood out."

In Rio, it was not purely mental strength that was tested as much as mental clarity. That, however, isn't an issue anymore according to coach Chanu. "The biggest difference between Mirabai five years ago and Mirabai today is that she is mentally much more clearer. She knows what she has to achieve. She has a target in her mind and she knows she had lifted those weights before."

When Mirabai is in Tokyo, coach Chanu says she will be watching nervously especially at the first lift.

"When I see, on the stage I can say from her body language and how she approaches the bar, if she is confident or not. The first lift will be crucial for her. I think she will start with a simple weight. If she does it easily, it will have a positive impact on the rest of the competition."

While Mirabai is not the gold medal favourite - that would be China's Hou Zhihui who beat her at the Asian Championships just a couple of months back - Chanu wouldn't be surprised if things could get tighter this time around. She says the fact that the Indian had given a minimum entry total of 210 kg in contrast to the Chinese who had entered a minimum total entry of 205 kg is a sign of how the Indian is feeling.

Although the minimum totals only serve to determine the order of lifting and the group the weightlifter is entered in, entering a higher weight than her key opponent is a sign of confidence.

"If she is completely relaxed, Mirabai could surprise everyone. Everyone thinks that her personal best is 205kg but if she is starts feeling confident she could easily lift 5-10 kg more."