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India’s Golden Sports Icon: Mary Kom

This year’s Olympic Games will not only see the debut of the power-packed game of boxing, but also of one of its most talented female champions, MC Mary Kom. Such is the expectation from the five-time champion’s maiden outing that enthusiasts are already imagining her on the winner’s podium in London.

Incidentally, though this five-feet-two-and-half inch gutsy sportswoman has inspired a whole new generation of women boxers across India, on the eve of her first Olympics she stands as the lone Indian woman in the team. Training hard with her British coach Charles Atkinson, according to media reports, the 29-year-old will camp at Liverpool for two weeks before heading to the Games Village in Stratford by end-July.

From the small village of Kangathei Kom to the centrestage of world sports at London today, it’s been a long and well-fought journey for Mary. Her story is particularly compelling considering that she started her sports career with just a dream. Recalls the star, “I really liked the sports activities in school, and often won prizes, especially in the athletics events. I was 13 when I confided my dream to my mother.”

But such an ambition meant that she would have to move from her home in Churachandpur district, to Imphal, the capital of Manipur, where the coaching facilities were located. Her parents were initially reluctant to allow this. “But I persisted and persuaded them that sports is also a field where I can do well. Finally, they gave in,” she says.

At that point Mary was training in athletics – the 400 metres race being her forte. She also did pole vault and javelin throw. But the victory of boxer Dingko Singh at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, and then at the Fifth National Games held in Imphal in 1999, proved to be turning points. “There were demonstration matches in women’s boxing during the National Games. I was inspired to take up boxing,” she recalls.

Seeing Mary’s potential and determination, Manipur state coaches Narjit Singh and Laishram Kishan Singh took her under their wing. “Mary was quick to pick up. She was also innovative and would put in certain moves of her own, going beyond what we taught. She had no fear and had great will power,” Laishram Kishan recalls. Later, she joined the Sports Authority of India (SAI) at Khuman Lampak and underwent an intensive training under her coach and mentor, Leishangthem Ibomcha Singh.

Despite her hard work in the ring, there was trouble at home. Mary had to handle differences with her father Mangte Tonpa Kom. “My father was okay with athletics. When he came to know that I box, he wasn’t too happy. He thought that I would end up with a broken face and that would end my marriage prospects,” she smiles.

The first tournament Mary took part in was the 1st State Level Boxing Championship organised by the Imphal District Amateur Boxing Association and Manipur Amateur Boxing Association in May 2000. She won a gold medal there in the Light Flyweight Category, as well as the Best Boxer title. Mary describes what happened next, “Father saw my picture in the papers and asked me if it was true that I was a boxer. When I said yes, he told me to give it up and take up some other sport. It took me some time to get him to relent. Later, he told me that he came to believe that it was God who was urging me to take up this sport.”

For Mary, there was no looking back after that first victory. She went on a gold-chase, punching her way to the top at both national and international events. So far she has won seven Indian National Championships, four golds and one silver at Asian Women Boxing Championship; and five golds and a silver at World Women Boxing Championships, all between 2000 and 2012.

Says Mary’s husband, Onkholer Kom, himself a retired footballer, “It was her perseverance, sympathy for all and her innocence that struck me.” They got married on March 12, 2005, at Imphal’s MBC church, and ever since Onkholer has been both her guide and support.

Pregnancy and motherhood meant a two-year break. But around a year after their twin sons – Rechunguar Kom and Khupneivar Kom – were born, she was back on her feet. Her comeback at the ring was in the Fourth Asian Women Boxing Championship held in Guwahati, where she won a silver medal. She followed this up with a fourth successive world title in 2008 in Ningbo City, China. Then she won the world championship gold for a record fifth time at Bridgetown, Barbados, in 2010. She defeated Steluta Duta of Romania 16-6 in the 48kg weight category final. This year, she has already bagged the gold at the Asian Women’s Championships in Mongolia.

While her golden run may appear a breeze, Mary did have her share of struggles. It took applications made over three years for New Delhi to recognise her contributions and give her the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna award. “It was getting a little frustrating. Even after winning four world championship Golds, I was being ignored. I was not even nominated. Then I decided the best way to deal with this was to go on playing well,” she explains.

In the 12 years since she won the first medal, albeit a silver, for India at the Women’s World Boxing Championship, Mary has, time and again, proved that she is the undisputed Mistress of the Ring. Marriage, motherhood, and many gold medals later, she now has her eyes set on an Olympic medal. In her bid to secure her chances for a podium finish at London, Mary has been helped by the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) programme of the Foundation for Promotion of Sports and Games, an Ahmedabad-based not-for-profit company. The programme, the brainchild of Indian sporting legends Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone, seeks to identify and assist Indian athletes with a proven track record and who have the potential to win Olympic gold medals in the six disciplines of shooting, athletics, boxing, wrestling, archery and badminton. Mary says she is greatly encouraged by the support she has been receiving from the OGQ.

Her first bout is slated to be on August 5, which incidentally, is her twin sons’ birthday. Media reports have quoted her as saying, “It is a special day, but I won’t be with my kids. Their birthday will give me many more reasons to win the bout.” She will be competing in the 51kg category, not her regular division though she is not worried. She feels that “height or weight doesn’t matter at all. If you have the willpower, you can conquer any opponent. I have that willpower”.

Despite her many achievements, the star boxer remains grounded. She is the inspiration of countless aspiring newcomers, many of whom have received training the MC Mary Kom Boxing Academy in the picturesque Langol foothills in Imphal West district. Girls like Chabungbam Pushpa, a farmer’s daughter just like her mentor, are eager to “follow in Madam’s footsteps and become a world class champion.” Mary herself puts it this way, “Most of the students in my academy come from poor families and from remote parts of Manipur. They are keen, but without proper guidance their talents will be wasted. God has helped me. In return, I want to groom as many aspiring boxers as I can.”

As the ring in London gets ready to receive the champion all she wants is that “all the Indians pray for me and the other Indian athletes. I will do my best to win a medal”.


It has been raining awards for Mary…

Mary Kom has received many awards for her achievements and contributions to women’s boxing, the most prominent being the Arjuna Award (2003), the Padma Shri (2005) and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (2009). Other awards include the People of the Year (2007) by the Limca Book of Records; India’s Real Heroes Awards (2008) given by CNN-IBN and Reliance Industries Limited, Mumbai; the Pepsi MTV Youth Icon (2008); the Param Poojaniya Shri Guruji Puruskar (2009) given by the RSS Jankalyan of Maharastra Prant; the North East Excellence Award (2009); the Sports Woman of the Year (2008-2009-2010) given by Sahara India Parivar, and the YFLO Women Achiever (2009-2010) given by the FCCI Ladies Organization.

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