Olympics 2012: Coming from the decrepit state of Manipur, multi-champion Mary Kom is not holding back in pursuit of glory as women's boxing makes debut at London.
Indian woman boxer and mother fights odds ahead of Olympics
In a remote, hillside academy on the edge of the country, one of India's best shots at an Olympic gold medal takes a breather from her training to trade punches with some students.
Mary Kom, a mother of two, is otherwise known here as Magnificent Mary or Madame Mary. She is under intense pressure while aiming at winning one of the first Olympic medals ever awarded in women's boxing. A five-time world champion, she established this non-profit academy to work with promising young boxers.
The scene is typical. A dozen young boxers ignore persistent drizzle to work out with her. They take instructions even as she stretches to prepare herself for the session.
Mary Kom issues further directions and then darts off to say goodbye to her twin five-year-old sons, Rengpa and Naimai, as they leave for school. She barely has time to pat her two mixed-breed dogs, Bruny and Dolly, on the way back before returning to the rigours of a boxer's routine.
As well as being mother, wife, mentor and motivator, she makes time for her own gruelling training with her coach, Charles Atkinson, saying the sessions have helped improve her fitness and technique.
Reporters have gathered at the academy to gather insight into Mary Kom's routine, but she has neither the time nor inclination to answer questions on this particular day. Her recurring line: "I'm at my best right now and the Olympics are my biggest dream."
Even before she leaves for London, she has travelled far from her impoverished beginnings in Manipur, a troubled north-eastern province which borders Myanmar and was annexed by India in 1949.
A gentle, motherly figure out of the ring, with a lavish ponytail and a penchant for colourful fabrics, Mary Kom, 29, is tenacious once she puts on the gloves.
Often she has to spar against male boxers, and considers it good training for the London Games, where she is stepping up a weight class to compete because only three divisions are being contested. Mary Kom won four of her world titles in the 46-kilogram division and one at 48kg.
But she will have to contend with top names in the 51kg category, including the two-time world champion Cancan Ren of China and Nicola Adams of Britain.
"I need to improve on all aspects. I have to work out more and I have to improve mentally. I have seen a lot of videos of my rivals and analysed them a lot," Mary Kom said after a quarter-final loss to Adams at the world championships in China last month, a defeat which for a time put her Olympics dream in doubt.
She earned a spot at London 2012 due to her continental ranking and says she has not been deterred by that foray into the heavier division. The Bible story of David and Goliath, she says, is something she likes to apply to her boxing.
Mary Kom is the eldest of four siblings, two sisters and a brother. As a young child she worked in the fields to help her parents and also took care of her siblings before leaving home to attend school when she was 15, lured by the prospect of achieving something in track and field.
That move somehow led her into boxing, with her original coaches remembering her as a rakish girl arriving in ragged clothes but always with enormous will.
Initially, she did not tell her family about the boxing and, even when she did, her father warned her that she might get injured and it could ruin her prospects for marriage. Those fears have been unfounded.
Her husband is among her biggest supporters, something she credits for being able to remain committed to the sport.
"As a mother, it is very difficult to stay away from my two sons … but I am glad to have a supporting husband like Onler, who takes care of them in my absence and has been the pillar of my strength," she was recently quoted as saying.
For someone whose aim was just to land a decent job, Mary Kom's success has already exceeded expectations. The state government has given her the grade of assistant superintendent of police where she earns a monthly salary of 31,000 rupees (Dh2,025), and she has received numerous cash awards over the years.
Mary Kom was one of six brand ambassadors for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, along with the male boxer Vijender Singh, despite women's boxing not being on the program in New Delhi. Both were also named as brand ambassadors this month for a leading face cream, a rarity in a country where cricketers get most endorsement deals.
At an event in Mumbai to mark the 50-day countdown to the London Games, Mary Kom answered questions about her Olympics campaign in comments reported in the local media.
"It is obvious that people will expect a medal from me," she said. "Also, this is the first time women's boxing is included at Olympics, so I want to create history and make my country proud."
After a tough time at the last world championships, Mary Kom is expecting more of herself in London. "I was shattered when I lost in the quarter-finals.
"Winning and losing is part of the game, but I didn't expect that loss to come at such a crucial time. But when I learnt that I have qualified for London, I was blank for a moment. Pressure at the Olympics will be lesser compared with the qualification tournament."
The profile of boxing soared since Vijender Singh won a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and a few more medals in London might make it the most followed Olympic sport in a country where field hockey has long held that status.
Singh's medal in the 75kg class came with another bronze won by Sushil Kumar, in wrestling, and the country's first individual gold, through the shooter Abhinav Bindra.
The three medals helped heighten the profile of Olympics disciplines in this medal-starved country of 1.2 billion.
"I feel all eight of our boxers have a realistic chance of winning medals and further boost the sport in the country," said Muralidharan Raja, the Indian Boxing Federation secretary-general.
He hopes any success in London will help promote boxing as a fitness sport in India.
"There is tremendous potential for boxing in the country as we will see after the Olympics and we are all ready to tap it."
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