Six years ago when Barack Obama doffed his hat to Mary Kom, saluting her courage and hard work during a stirring speech, the Indian boxer wore the acknowledgement from the first African-American president of the United States as gracefully as she wears a smile after each victory in the ring.
Having emerged from the neglected, conflict-torn north eastern state of Manipur, Mary went on to embark on an epoch-making journey – the landmarks of which included six world championships gold medals and an Olympic bronze.
Now two months before her Olympic swansong in Tokyo, Mary, the mother of three, is preparing for her semifinal bout at the Asian Boxing Championships in Dubai.
In an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times, the iconic Indian boxer revealed what keeps her going at the age of 38.
How has been your preparation for the Asian Championships as well as the Olympics considering there have been only a few events in the past 15 months?
The past year has been extremely challenging for all of us. Being confined to our homes and not being able to spar (was tough), but we had to remain fit physically and mentally. Regular camps couldn’t be conducted and I was mostly training at home. Training in the past few months due to the Covid situation wasn’t easy. Despite the obstacles, the Boxing Federation and my coaches and support staff helped me remotely to manage a lot of the regimes. Once I resumed training at the national camp in Pune, I am in a much better space. I am glad I could take care of sparring and my stamina and fitness before coming to Dubai. I am really looking forward to the much-needed match practice here.
A good performance in Dubai will certainly help now that the Olympics are only two months away…
A good performance here will be a massive boost as it is the last tournament before the Olympics. More than that, it will be crucial to check my progress as well as note the areas where work is needed. Some of the best players from Asia who will be part of the Olympics are here as well, so we will be up against the best players in Asia. Due to Covid, competitions have been less and we need to make the most of our opportunities. I am extremely grateful to the Boxing Federation of India (BFI) for making sure that we can participate in this tournament despite the tough circumstances. The rest of the boxers too feel the same way.
Coming from a neglected region, you became one of India’s greatest sportspersons ever. How does it feel when the young generation looks up to you for inspiration?
God has been kind and I am grateful for all the help and support from friends, family and the constant love and encouragement from fans that I have been receiving over the years. I am also thankful for the rejections and failures I had to face because every obstacle made me more determined. I am glad that my story, my journey over the years have inspired many and they have been able to find their calling. I am extremely thankful to all the people who have played a part in me being where I am and especially my husband, without whom this journey would not have been possible. I find it amazing to see the upcoming boxers, including a few that belong to my academy in Manipur, that are doing exceptionally well. Two of them won gold at the recently concluded World Youth Championships and I want to continue to contribute and play a role.
You have done everything. Won six world championships, an Olympic bronze and an Asian Games gold. You are still here as a mother of three and now going for the second Olympic medal. Even the pandemic has failed to slow you down. What motivates you to keep waking up in the morning for rigorous training?
Boxing is my life, and I am nothing without it. It completes me. The elusive Olympic gold medal is missing in my repertoire and that keeps me going. Apart from that, the love of my family and children is a constant inspiration for me to achieve more. On some days, when I am tired and cannot push more, it is my support staff and coaches who ensure I am there in the ring every day and go that extra mile. And I am confident, no motivation is less when you go out and play for the country and win medals.
We are in the middle of a pandemic. As an athlete, how have you mentally prepared yourself to be in a bubble among 10,000 athletes at the Tokyo Games village where movements will be restricted? It’s going to be a whole new experience for all athletes.
As I said before, these are unprecedented times and one must be adaptive in nature, keeping the current circumstances in mind. We must be patient and keep ourselves fit and match-ready and I have been focusing on only that. All the athletes have seen the consequences of not being careful. We are already training in bio bubble since the first lockdown and it has made us mentally strong. During the Olympics, our goal as a player is to give our best and that is what I will aim to do. It will be an Olympics with a lot of firsts and we have to adapt.
You said Tokyo would be your last Olympics. This has been an extraordinary journey for you. What do you think has been your biggest contribution to Indian sport?
My belief and my determination are what have brought me where I am today. I do not believe in the word impossible, for me it is ‘I am possible’. No barriers are strong enough if you have the determination to go past them. Who knew a girl from the absolute humble background will win an Olympic medal and make a name for herself? But if I can, so can you – this is my message to every sportsperson especially women who dream to make it big and not get bogged down due to circumstances. Personally, every time I have been inside the ring and won the medal for India, I have been able to make someone somewhere believe no goal is impossible to achieve.
You have taken the first dose of the vaccine. Considering the world is still in the middle of this big crisis, especially India, what will be your message to people?
My message to the people will be to not let their guard down and follow all the safety protocols, act responsibly, and wear masks in public. It can go a long way in fighting the virus and saving lives. People should also get themselves vaccinated as soon as they can, come what may.