Even as Mirabai Chanu went up to make her final attempt at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent en route to setting a new world record, her coach Vijay Sharma noticed something unusual out of the corner of his eye.
"I saw that the Chinese coaches were paying attention to Mirabai's attempt as well," he says. This was unusual. Chinese weightlifters - especially in the women's division rarely have to worry too much about what the rest of the field is doing.
Indeed, such is their dominance of the women's divisions that of the 18 world records in the Olympic weight divisions, 14 are held by Chinese weightlifters. "It's almost as if they take it for granted that if they set a record, unki hi rahegi (it will stay with them)" says Sharma.
At the start of the Asian Championships, the clean and jerk record in the women's 49kg division was also held by a Chinese lifter -- Jiang Huihua -- who had set the mark of 118kg, nearly two years ago at the 2019 World Championships.
But as the 26-year-old Mirabai made her way up to the platform, she'd already planted a little seed of doubt among the coaches of the weightlifting giants. The Indian was in unknown territory herself. Earlier in her second attempt in the clean and jerk, Mirabai had set a personal best and with it a new national record of 117 kg. But 119kg was another matter. "She's never even attempted this in training before. There's too much risk of injury," says Sharma.
Mirabai would make the lift almost as if she had been doing this every other training session. She cleaned the weight smoothly. As she pushed the bar skyward, her right knee buckled inwards. "It's understandable," explains coach Sharma. "She's only 49kg. Imagine the kind of force that going through her body at this point," he says. Mirabai though, steadied herself and locked out her elbows. By the end, she even cracked a smile as the three white lights signalling a clean lift (and the fact that she'd become the first Indian since Karnam Malleswari in 1995 to become a world record holder) went off.
Almost as a response, Huihua tried to regain the record with an attempt at 125kg. She wouldn't even manage to secure the bar to her collarbone.
Despite her heroics in the clean and jerk, Mirabai wouldn't walk away with the overall gold though. China's Hou Zhihui took gold with an overall world record of 213 (96 +117) while Huihui took silver with a total of 207 (89+118). That's because earlier in the snatch event, where athletes have to hoist the bar overhead in a single motion, she'd done worse than she had expected. Against a personal best of 87kg - failing two attempts at 85kg before making a lift of 86kg.
"86kg is nothing for her. There was no real fear of her missing the third attempt. But after she missed the first two attempts we just wanted her to approach the bar as if it was a new weight." Mirabai's coach Vijay Sharma
Perhaps some of that had to do with the long layoff - Mirabai had last competed at the Qatar Cup in December 2019. She was supposed to take part at the National Championships last month but that tournament was cancelled owing to the coronavirus pandemic in India. "She didn't have any competition for a year and a half. Sometimes it's difficult to return directly to a high level competition like that," says Coach Sharma.
Mirabai had entered the competition as one of the favourites to medal. The two Chinese competitors - Huihua and Hou Zhihui -- were favourites, with Chanu having finished fourth behind them at the last Asian and World Championships. But the weightlifter who usually took third place - North Korea's Ri Song Gum -- would not be competing since her country had opted out of the Olympics entirely.
The Indian's hopes though were hanging by a thread after the two failed attempts early on in the snatch. One more and she would be out of the competition. Even if she did make the lift, there was a time Mirabai's two early failed attempts could have seriously affected the rest of her competition. Back in the 2016 Rio Olympics, she had made two failed attempts in the snatch before managing to stay in the competition with her third lift. The pressure of all those missed opportunities took its toll as she failed to make a single lift in the clean and jerk.
Four years on, it was clear that Mirabai has toughened up mentally. After missing her first two lifts, she decided increase the weight on the bar in her third attempt. "86kg is nothing for her. There was no real fear of her missing the third attempt. But after she missed the first two attempts we just wanted her to approach the bar as if it was a new weight," says coach Sharma.
The memories of the earlier misses were also cast aside. "We had come into this competition not wondering about our opponents or anything. We had come with a target of what weight we wanted to attempt. We wanted to do 90kg in the snatch and we had planned to set a record in the clean and jerk. We hadn't been successful in the first instance but I told Mirabai she still had that opportunity in the clean and jerk," says Sharma.
That's exactly how it played out. Although her performance in the snatch brought down her overall total, it was still enough for a new national record of 205kg. But more than that and the Asian bronze, the effort was more important for what lies ahead. "This result is very important for us going into the Tokyo Olympics," says Sharma.
Countries can send representatives in a maximum of four of the seven Olympic weight divisions. For China this means that sending a lifter in a division they feel they are certain of winning a gold would make more sense than sending one in a weight class where they anticipate a tough challenge. On Saturday, Mirabai proved she can do just that. "I told her we have to let China know that they won't just get to compete among themselves for the gold. They need to know they aren't the only ones in the fight," says Sharma.