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Mary Kom: Packing a punch, even at 36

The Olympic medallist, six-time World Champion and a mother of three is one of the country's most decorated sportspersons. And she isn't done yet

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Mar 1, 2019 07:24:35 AM IST
Updated: Mar 1, 2019 05:02:06 PM IST

Mary Kom: Packing a punch, even at 36
Image: Amit Verma

Mary Kom
Age: 36 

It is a rather benign question to trouble a 36-year-old adroit at juggling multiple roles. But asked which has been her most satisfying career achievement to date, Mangte Chungneijang Mary Kom takes a moment to pause, and scrunches her face. “It’s difficult to pick one,” she says, “I’ve had so many victories at various levels and each is equally satisfying.”

One can perhaps explain Kom’s predicament as a problem of plenty. After all, sitting across me at her official residence in Delhi and hidden behind an affable demeanour—insisting that we pack for the road the cookies and rice crackers she’s brought back from Imphal—is one of India’s most accomplished sportspersons in recent times. Olympic medallist, six times World Champion (the most for a woman boxer, and tied with Cuban male boxer Felix Savon), the first woman to win the AIBA (International Boxing Association) Legends Award, and the No 1 women’s boxer in the association’s rankings released in January, Kom has ticked quite a few boxes.

For a boxer with such credentials, a bronze in the London 2012 Olympic Games could very well be another piece of metal that she’s picked along the way. But after some prodding, Kom does choose the Olympics—where she won after shifting to a higher 51 kg category from her playbook of 48—as her most satisfying career achievement. For, there’s no denying that the bronze brought her recognition of a magnitude that winning five World Championships before didn’t. It changed in a heartbeat the years of travelling by buses and trains, cramming up in a room of four with just a fan in the oppressive Delhi heat, the utter ignorance about nutrition, diet, doctors, physios, what have you. “Earlier, we would just buy glucose and drink. That would be our so-called diet,” she says. “We continued boxing, without even knowing if it would be included in the Olympics, just because we wanted to box. With the Olympic medal, people became more aware of women’s boxing.”

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With the Olympic win came help—land and funding—for running her Mary Kom Boxing Academy in Imphal. And, in 2014, when her biopic starring Priyanka Chopra followed, her fandom spiralled out of control. Now every time Kom steps out on the street, she, and her entire family, are inundated with selfie requests. Going to the nearest shopping mall in Delhi—where she has moved after being nominated to the Rajya Sabha as a Member of Parliament (MP) in 2016—entails prior planning, not just in fixing up an entourage but also her disguise in a scarf, mask or a hoodie. When was the last time you could say that about an Indian sportsperson who isn’t a cricketer or shuttler PV Sindhu?

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If Kom’s CV doesn’t yet look impressive enough, add to it the fact that twice she’s conquered the ring after giving birth—first in 2007 to twins Khupneivar and Rechungvar, and then to Prince in 2013. A Twitter tribute to tennis legend Serena Williams from Jelena, the wife of men’s world No 1 Novak Djokovic, will help put this in perspective. “This amazing woman...has given birth to her little girl just one day before I gave birth to my girl 10 months ago. I am barely surviving to watch, and she is RUNNING and playing FINAL of a Grand Slam,” Jelena tweeted after the Wimbledon ladies singles final of 2018 where Williams was the runner-up. For Kom, imagine that twice over, in a sport where one has to routinely take body blows.

“It was painful after giving birth, particularly because I had C-sections. When I resumed training, I didn’t give 100 percent. I built up capacity gradually,” says Kom.

Dr Nikhil Latey, a physiotherapist and sports scientist who worked with Kom between 2010 and 2016, recalls that once her younger son was born in May 2013, Kom took a 10-month break and returned to training next March. When she joined, with her mum and the child watching from the ringside, she was unfit and had put on post-pregnancy weight. “In the first 20 days, we were quite gentle with her, but she soon got into a routine and shed much of her weight quickly. You could see her feet were moving the way they were supposed to, her punches were coming out the way they were supposed to,” says Latey. “By the end of the month, we knew she was back.” Six months later, Kom won a gold medal at the Asian Games in Incheon.

Kom says, “Once my training is regular, nobody can beat me easily. Even if I lose, it’ll be a close match.”

Her quick recovery is facilitated by an extreme self-awareness and understanding of how much her body can cope with. If she hasn’t slept well between her morning and evening practice sessions, Kom will dial down the intensity and compensate the day after. It makes her training sessions focussed and smart. “We make juniors run more, but with Mary we prepare standing fitness schedules. If junior boxers are made to run for 40-45 minutes, she’ll run in clusters of 7 minutes of medium-speed, 7 minutes fast and 7 minutes slow,” says Mohammed Ali Qamar, chief coach for the national women’s boxing team. 

Inside the ring too, smart is the keyword for Kom. She trains imagining her opponent in her head and executes the plan to perfection during a match. Often, less is more. “Some boxers use all their energy in the first round and can’t even lift their hands in the second. Unnecessary punching kills your energy. A punch on target,” she says, thumping her left palm with her right fist, “conserves it.”

Her trainer Chhote Lal Yadav, with whom Kom is working since 2016, calls her a boxer in the mould of her idol Muhammad Ali. Like the legend, who is known to have famously floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, Kom hits quickly and gets out of the way. “Even at 36, I haven’t seen such fast punches among Indian boxers. She is faster than 18-year-old trainees and more hardworking than them. Mary trains with the hunger of someone who has just started out,” says Yadav. Kom’s record-breaking sixth World Championship title in Delhi in November came after convincingly defeating Ukrainian boxer Hanna Okhota, 13 years her junior; Okhota was all of five when Kom bagged her first World Championships podium finish, winning a silver at the 2001 edition of the tournament in the US.  

“In sport, we have really talented people about whom we say they were born to do this. For instance, Kapil Dev was born to be a fast bowler. Mary is in that mould. She was born to box. Her body, muscles and mind are that of a boxer’s,” says Geet Sethi, former billiards champion and founder of Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ), a not-for-profit foundation that supports top athletes with funding and infrastructure. Kom was signed on by OGQ in 2009 for her conviction to fight and win despite moving up the weight category.

Ten years on, she is still consumed by the deep desire to win. She is one of the earliest ones to report for practice every day and once she is into the boxing hall, she is neither a wife nor a mother nor an MP, “but just a student”, says her trainer Yadav. Conversely, when she is at home, she isn’t a boxer, but a hands-on mother, who’s often feeding her kids, playing with them or giving them the occasional holler to get off the computer or stop fiddling with her phone. “They calm down for a moment, but an hour later, they are back to their old selves,” she says. “Just look at this,” she holds up doodled eyes and moustaches on the cover of a magazine, before doubling up with laughter.

Mary Kom: Packing a punch, even at 36
Mary Kom with husband Onler and their three kids at an event in New Delhi
Image: K Asif/India Today Group/ Getty Images

Spending time with her children and husband Onler has been easy after the family moved to Delhi. The kids have been admitted to a school nearby. Weekdays still remain chock-a-block with two practice sessions a day and visits to Parliament when the House convenes. Weekends are slightly slow, with only a morning practice session and an off day on Sunday. Come Monday morning, the kids would be off to school and she to the practice session—as she gears up for the World Championships in the second half of the year, a tournament that would hold the qualifying rounds for Olympics 2020—where the family would again recede into the background and into the very able hands of Onler who, as many sources would say, is the veritable “rock in Mary’s life”. 

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Whoever said women can’t have it all has not seen Mary Kom. Or Onler, one of the driving forces behind Kom having it all. Latey remembers driving down with Kom from Patiala, where she was training at the national camp, to Delhi in 2011, when the boxer told him about a heart surgery that one of her twins, Khupneivar, had to undergo. Onler, who had given up his government job to let Mary box, had kept the information from her and only told her when the camp had a break and she was to return home. The surgery was planned at PGI in Chandigarh, close to Patiala, but since it wasn’t an emergency, was scheduled only for later, prioritising urgent ones. When the dates were finally given, they coincided with Kom’s Asian championships. It was Onler who convinced his wife to fly down to China for the event, where Kom displayed supreme resolve by winning gold. “It shows how she never carries her family worries into the ring,” says Latey. “Once the tournament was won, she flew back to Chandigarh to be with her son the day before he got operated.” 

Suprita Das, author and former sports journalist, recalls, “Over my many interactions with Mary, I’ve noticed that off the ring, she is a doting mother, while on it she’s a tigress, a quick learner and a ferocious fighter. I haven’t been able to crack how she does that,” she says. “Whenever I’ve asked her about her seamless transformation from a mother to a boxer and back, she keeps saying I don’t know, God helps me do it.”

It helps that the children are in it too. While the twins, now 11, would earlier create a fuss while Kom would leave home, they’ve settled down and come to terms with her schedule over the past several years. “Funnily, the youngest one always knew. He’s never cried when I’ve left, instead would push me to go for practice,” says Kom. “Imagine having to bear the guilt of leaving behind a howling kid.” Often, when Kom is catching up on rest in between her practice sessions, the kids tiptoe around the house so as not to wake her up. “They love playing football. Look at the number of footballs in the courtyard,” she rolls her eyes in mock anger. “But when I am too tired to play with them, they never insist.”

Today, Kom could well choose to hang up her gloves, for she already owns a part of the country’s sporting history. If not just for her personal glories—an incredible journey from an impoverished family in a remote Manipur village—she could very well be credited with opening up a conversation about a sport that wasn’t even part of public consciousness in a cricket-obsessed country, or an Olympic discipline till 2012. In doing that, Kom has not only emulated her role model Dingko Singh—the Manipuri boxer who inspired her to take up the sport with a gold-medal winning performance in 1998 Asiad—but has taken it many times forward. “It’s success stories like Mary’s that have brought about a change in the attitude of administrators, that if you support our boxers, they’ll bring us the medals,” says Das.

But Kom isn’t done yet. 2019 is a key year for Olympic qualifications and is a stepping stone towards her ultimate goal of winning a gold at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Till that is done, the thought of retirement isn’t even likely to cross her mind. That she’s the country’s biggest medal hope going into an international tournament is evidence of her calibre and charisma. Like tennis stars Roger Federer and the Williams sisters, Kom is motoring on at an age many of their counterparts would have walked into the sunset.  

Once she does stop, there’s more boxing through her academy, where she houses and trains aspirants for free. Five of them have, in fact, won medals at the recently-concluded Khelo India Youth Games. Right now though, all that’s on the backburner, and the Tokyo Games are firmly ensconced as the bird’s eye. Says Das, “Mary doesn’t need to do anything more for us. She doesn’t owe us anything more. Despite that, she continues to fight and win. This spirit to continue makes her like no one else.”

(This story appears in the 15 March, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)