She is the first Indian female boxer to have bagged a gold at the 2014 Asian Games held in South Korea, the first Indian female pugilist to win a gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games and the only boxer who was the Asian Amateur Boxing champion for as many as six times, creating yet another record.
She won her sixth world title in 2018, at the age of 36—an age by which most boxers have long hung their gloves. Mary Kom was born in a district of rural Manipur on 24 November 1982. Her family worked as tenant farmers. As a child, she helped her parents in household chores and also attended school, where she took to a variety of sports, including volleyball and boxing. When a fellow Manipuri, Ngangom Dingko Singh, won a gold at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, it inspired many in the state to take to the sport, and Kom was among them.
At the age of 15, Kom took a bold decision that went on to change her life—she decided to leave her home and relocate to the capital, Imphal, to stay at the sports academy there. Her first coach was K. Kosana Meitei, who would later remember her as an extraordinary, hardworking girl who was quick to grasp the essentials of the sport. She then trained under the state boxing coach, Narjit Singh.
Throughout, she hid her interest in boxing from her father; he held that boxing could hurt a girl’s face and cause problems in her marriage. But the secret was out one day when he saw his daughter’s photograph in the newspapers after she won the state boxing championship in 2000. Impressed by her resolve and success, he backed her completely from there on.
The road to the top, however, was not easy. She faced difficulties because boxing was a male-dominated sport. Kom had shared that the challenges she faced on the way to becoming a boxer helped her achieve eventual success. ‘I was always interested in sports but I never really knew the role of sports and its benefits. I just loved playing with the boys in my village because girls never played. The situation in my childhood was totally different from what it is now, only boys would be playing outside.’ There was another challenge, one that came later in her career. After her marriage in 2005 and the birth of her twins two years later and a son in 2013, sceptics believed her career was over. She did take a break but returned to the boxing ring with many more victories to her name. She won an Olympic bronze in 2012 in London, besides other titles.
At a media event, she once said: People used to think that I could win only when I was not married, but after getting married and having children, I had to struggle a lot. You knew conditions are tough in Manipur, there is insurgency often. It’s not easy to make a comeback after getting married and having children. God made me so so so special. I decided that until I achieve it [further success], I won’t quit.
Kom believes that her career was pre destined. ‘God chose me for sports, I think,’ she had said. ‘Because there can’t be any other reason that I would enter sports and end up spending my entire life in it. So I had never imagined that I would be making a career like this. Slowly I started understanding the benefits of sports, that if you do well in it, you get better job opportunities. If you excel in sports, you excel in life.’
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Although all her achievements are naturally outstanding, she considers the medal she won at the continental meet in the Vietnamese city of Ho Chi Minh in 2017, her fifth gold at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championships, as special. ‘This medal is very special to me […] because it has its own story of struggles. I am hoping this medal, which has come after I became an MP, will enhance my reputation even further. I hope my stature grows.’
The success came at a particularly busy time in her life—she was involved in running her boxing academy in Imphal, which has been doing commendable work in training budding boxers, besides being a Member of Parliament and a mother. She cherishes the 2018 world championship bout, which she won in front of the home crowd. She has come far since 2001, when she was considered an ‘all strength and no skills’ boxer. Now she was calculative, not wanting to get hit but win. She later said, ‘This was also among the toughest for me because there were huge expectations. I competed at the Commonwealth Games (48-kilogram category) and got a gold this year. Because of that, there was huge pressure for the world championship as well.’
Nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Narendra Modi government, she began her term on 26 April 2016. Despite being an active sportsperson with a packed schedule, she maintained an average attendance of 53 per cent. She featured in at least four debates and was also a member of the Standing Committee on Food, Consumer Affairs and Public Distribution. She released 1 crore from her Members of Parliament Local Area Development Scheme funds towards relief work in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. She also donated her one month’s salary to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. For all achievements, Kom remains baffled to this day on how she managed those feats!
This excerpt from Sanjeev Sanyal and Rajesh Singh’s ‘Iconic Indians: 75 Extraordinary Individuals Who Inspired the Country’ has been taken with permission from Rupa Publications.