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- By DIKSHA SAHNI
Until now, when India’s Northeast made news for sports, it would most likely have been because of Baichung Bhutia, the Indian footballer. Now, a petite young woman is changing that.
Think Indian women’s boxing and the sole name that comes to mind is M.C. Mary Kom – the only Indian woman boxer to qualify for the London Olympics and the first Indian woman to win five world boxing championships.
Her story is close to the stuff that dreams are made of. Belonging to a poor family in India’s Northeast state of Manipur, struggling to make ends meet, she was passionate about being an athlete. As she grew up, she witnessed the spectacular win of Dingko Singh, a boxer from her state, who won gold at the 1998 Asian Games and she decided that she, too, wanted to be a boxer.
Today, the 29-year-old star boxer and mother of twin boys is a pioneer in her field, a domain considered largely a sport for men, but is also emerging as the new poster girl of Indian sports overall.
Recently, SportsPro, a monthly British magazine, named her as the 38th most marketable athlete in their list of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes. She added another feather in her cap by becoming the first woman to hold the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel in the Territorial Army. The same rank is held by former cricketer Kapil Dev, Indian cricket team captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and shooter Abhinav Bindra.
In an email interview with The Wall Street Journal, Kom talks about what it means to be a woman in boxing, managing the balancing act of family and sports, and why Olympic gold will set her free.
WSJ: Boxing has traditionally been a man’s sport. How difficult was it to break the barrier?
Kom: Being a woman boxer, when I started out, it wasn’t easy at all. Not just from the perspective of the outside world, but also due to resistance from within the family. In fact, that was exactly my family’s point that I could get disfigured and hurt my chances of getting married. It took some convincing.
As time went on and I performed well, I was able to break the barrier and be accepted. [It] is still not the easiest thing in the world, but it is getting easier, more acceptable and more accessible to be a female boxer in India.
WSJ: SportsPro recently ranked you among the most marketable athletes. How do you feel about the recognition?
Kom: It is an honor to be ranked in this illustrious list. I believe that only I and M.S. Dhoni represent India in this list and that is quite flattering.
WSJ: So will we be seeing you doing more endorsements?
Kom: Well, that remains to be seen! I am already endorsing Herbalife, P&G Proud Mom’s campaign, Emami, and one more yet-to-be-disclosed brand. Perhaps a few more brands will step forward after the Olympics if I do well.
WSJ: How are the preparations for the Olympics going on?
Kom: Very well actually. Training hard for over seven hours a day and concentrating on strengthening all of the plus points and developing new strategies for some of those points that might otherwise become a hindrance during the Olympics. We’re working hard on stamina and speed among others and also on ways and means to beat the much taller boxers that I will need to face in London.
WSJ: You said in a recent interview that Olympic gold will “set you free.” Why?
Kom: I have achieved a fair bit in life, yet the long-cherished dream has been an Olympic gold. From the time this thought has entered my mind, it has become the Everest that I want to scale and scaling this will set me free.
- Manpreet Romana/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images
- Kom, right, during a bout at the Fourth World Women Boxing Championship in New Delhi, Nov. 23, 2006.
WSJ: Who is the opponent you fear most in the ring?
Kom: I fear no opponent but hold out respect for all of them. No boxer worth her [or] his salt would ever allow fear to enter their psyche as that is a sure route to disaster. Even when one loses to someone, the next bout is not about fear but about understanding what went wrong the last time and addressing that.
WSJ: What goes on in your mind as you enter the ring?
Kom: Those moments are really when I come into my own for the boxing ring is a comfort zone for me. I am a little excited and a little nervous sometimes, but all of this is within the larger framework of peace and certainty that surrounds me before a bout.
I know what I have to do to win against that particular opponent, what my strengths are and what her weaknesses are and that is all I concentrate on. It is a good space to be in.
WSJ: You are a wife and a mother. Do these responsibilities weigh you down?
Kom: It is not always the easiest thing to balance the demands of family and being a professional athlete, but it is not impossible either.
Onler [her husband] has made all of this possible and without him I would not have been in a position to try and follow my dreams. I do miss my family and would love to spend more time with them.
- Anupam Nath/Associated Press
- Kom with her twin boys
WSJ: What was the turning point of your sporting career?
Kom: Dingko Singh’s performance at the Asian Games, which resulted in me becoming a boxer!
WSJ: How do you handle the weight of high expectations? Does it bother you?
Kom: It is a part of a professional athlete’s life. It doesn’t bother me as much as it motivates me. Though, there are of course times when it can be a little difficult to hear about the pressure. I want to fulfill these expectations!
WSJ: How has life been outside the ring?
Kom: That is a long story! It has not been an easy life and my family and I have struggled hard for a very long time. That said, my family is my pillar of support and life is incredibly beautiful when I am with them.
WSJ: Why do you think we see fewer athletes from the Northeast? Is government support lacking?
Kom: I would think that the country is seeing quite a few athletes from the Northeast now. So many boxers have already emerged from here, football is a big sport and even other sports are emerging onto the national stage.
The government, I guess, does as much as it can, but obviously it has so much more to deal with in such a limited budget that sports can take a back seat. There is no easy answer to this really and while the government does do a fair bit, it would be nice if it could do a lot more.
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