New Delhi: A World Championship gold medal making her an instant star last year, India's top weightlifter Saikhom Mirabai Chanu will start as overwhelming favourite to clinch the top prize in women's 48kg category at the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast next month.
Mirabai had won a silver in the last Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, having finished behind compatriot Sanjita Chanu, but in the four years since then, the 23-year-old Manipuri has made rapid strides to reach a truly world class level.
She lifted a total of 170 kg (75kg in snatch and 95 kg in clean and jerk) in Glasgow but three years later, she had a total lift of 194 kg (85+109) to win the gold in the World Championships in USA in November last, becoming only the second Indian weightlifter to achieve the feat.
Before the World Championships, she had also won the Commonwealth Championships gold in Australia in July last year with a total lift of 189 kg (85+104).
"The competition in CWG is less as compared to Asian Games or World Championships, so it will be a bit easy in Gold Coast. I can say I will win the gold. It should not be difficult for me to do that," Mirabai told PTI from Australia.
She is currently training at In2Performance Centre at Victoria Noble Park in Melbourne, an elite training centre. All the 16 Indian weightlifters who are taking part in the CWG are training here since March 9. They will leave for Gold Coast on April 1.
The CWG record in this weight category is 175 kg (77+98), in the name of Augustina Nwaokolo of Nigeria, which she achieved while winning gold in 2010 Delhi Games.
A look at Mirabai's opponents in 48kg in Gold Coast, provided by Commonwealth Weightlifting Federation, shows that all the competitors except Mirabai have a personal best of below 180kg. Mirabai's likely closest rival will be Amanda Braddock of Canada who has a personal best of 173 kg.
"None of the other competitors has a total lift near 180 kg. I am not taking it easy but at the same time, I will not exert too much also. I will try to lift 190kg or near about but will not try to go past say 195 kg or near 200 kg," she said.
"I don't want to get injured as there is Asian Game later this year. My main aim this year is to win gold in Asian Games with a top class performance. Many of the top lifters in the world will compete in Asian Games and I want to win gold there and keep myself improving till the 2020 Tokyo Olympics," she said.
Her event will be on April 5, the first day of competitions, and if she wins a gold, that could be the first one for India in this CWG.
Head coach Vijay Sharma said that a gold from Mirabai is more or less assured as she is head and shoulders above the rest of the field.
"Mirabai has a personal best of 194 kg whereas all the other opponents do not have even 180kg. Historically also, none of the gold medallist in 48kg has lifted 180 kg in CWG. She is lifting 198 kg in training but we are not looking to go up to that," he said.
The challenge will be to reach 200 kg and being consistent if she wants to win at least a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
India has been the dominant force in this 48kg weight category since women's weightlifting was included in 2002 Manchester Games. The legendary N Kunjarani won two back-to-back gold in this category in 2002 and 2006 Games but India missed out on a gold in 2010 at home.
"Kunjarani has been one of my idols and I grew up in Manipur watching and learning about her exploits. She has been one of the reasons for my taking up the sport. I am feeling happy that I am doing well for the country in a weight category she has done so well in the past for the country," she said.
Born in a poor family at Nongpok Kakching in Manipur, Mirabai is the youngest of six siblings. She has two brothers and three sisters. His father still works as a lower level employee at the Pubic Works Department in Imphal, the state capital, while her mother runs a small shop at their village.
"When I was young and when I started my sport, it was a very difficult situation. My father's salary and the small income that comes from my mother's shop could hardly meet the ends of the family. It is better now as I am also working but you cannot say that we are well-off. We are still struggling," she said.
All her siblings are married now and she is supporting her parents financially.
"My goal is to win a medal in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. That is the dream I am living with and for which I will do anything under the sun," she signed off.