She is humming a tune while browsing through her phone, tucking into the omelette and sandwich lying before her. Dressed in a white kurta for a shoot for Ankit TMT Bars of which she is the brand ambassador, she looks petite and strong at the same time. Her eyes are kind and when she offers us a bite, the girl next door thrusts ahead of the six-time world boxing champion.
My mind travels back to a chat I had with her back in 2014. “That’s the main aim (a gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics). My last final... I want to give it a last chance. I want to give it my best. I am 30 and boxing is a tough game. I have had a C-section. So, I have a lot of small, small injuries, back pain, knee pain… maybe I won’t be able to continue. Yes, I am still strong and I can fight till I am 60. My willpower is still there. But if my body is not working, then...” she had smiled cuddling her then eight-month-old son Prince while he played on her lap. Is her body telling her to stop, we had probed. “Not yet... not till Rio I think. I know. After that, maybe I’ll get tired,” she had said.
Well, a Commonwealth Games gold happened last year and the 36-year-old has her eyes trained on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. “I will give it whatever I have,” she smiles. Oh yes, you see her eyes twinkle, almost glowing with unmistakable hunger for the glint of gold. “I am ziddi about that medal... to win a gold is always the aim,” she had told us once.
That aim hasn’t changed, neither has she. Not one wee bit. That fire in the belly still drives Mary Kom.
The secret to her success…
I don’t have secrets. I am so lucky that I have a good husband (Onler Kom), a good family… my family is always behind me. I discuss my future plans with my husband and if he supports me, it is easy for me to go full throttle.
The initial years…
I loved watching action films during my childhood… Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Action films have given me a lot of inspiration. Back then, I had no clue what boxing really meant. Much later I came to know of it as a sport and that it was pursued by a lot of people, especially men. Initially, actions films filled my imagination. I knew about the legends like Muhammad Ali and (Mike) Tyson. I am a big fan of Muhammad Ali. He is my hero. Watching him made me take up the sport.
I was 17-18 when I started boxing, but I used to love it since I was six or seven but there was no one to guide me and no one knew about it as a sport. I didn’t even know if women’s boxing existed. I was worried what would I do if women’s boxing wasn’t there. I loved it so much, I had to give it a try. I would beat up the boys (laughs) and many would be scared of me. We used to fight each other. They would challenge me and then we would start fighting (laughs).
I didn’t tell anyone back home about my plans in the beginning. I would hide everything, even when I became the state champion in my category and won a gold for the first time in my life. It was a big secret. They came to know about it from the newspaper. My father was surprised. I had also changed my name to MC Mary Kom because the long one (Chungneijang Mary Kom Hmangte) was difficult to pronounce. Many people got stuck. Yes, we did have a discussion and he scolded me (laughs). I told him that I hadn’t told him because he wouldn’t have been able to support me in my decision.
I think my parents wanted me to study and gain a good education. If I had that potential, then they would have loved me to continue with it. The senior the level, the expensive the education gets. I have one brother and two sisters and I am the eldest. I had to set an example for them and also, if I were alone, my parents could have borne the expenses better maybe.
Initially that support wasn’t there from my family, but I did convince them and request them many times… again and again… every day. Finally they agreed. My father was worried about the finances. Even I didn’t know how much the kit cost, but it was cheaper than education for us at that time. Education is of course important too.
The making of the champion…
I did not have a mentor. If I have committed to something, I wouldn’t rest until I have achieved it. I don’t listen to anyone else, what they say or don’t. A lot of people say a lot of things. That is not their job. How can they decide on your behalf? How can they take decisions of your life? They keep talking about the right and the wrong. If someone says anything negative, I take up the challenge to prove it to them that I can do it.
I started taking part in contests and one thing led to another, step by step. State has trial selections for the nationals. My family bore the expenses that time, yes. Very expensive. There was also the stress that if I couldn’t prove myself, maybe my family would not support me any more. So, initially, I had to keep on proving. The hard work was crazy.
Before marriage, the struggle is different. After marriage, many make excuses. If you really want to do something, you can. I have proved it. I promised myself that my career will not be over after marriage. This is a secret. I asked my husband before marriage whether he’d be able to support me or not. I told him if he supported me, I would marry him and also prove my mettle. He has been such a support. If he didn’t allow me, would I have been able to go ahead and do what I have? Luckily, my father-in-law was also very supportive. I have faced a lot of negativity in my career and it has only challenged me to do better. God is so kind that he has given me success all the time.
The turning point…
After the Olympic medal (bronze in London; 2012), a lot of people started following me. The movie (the 2014 film Mary Kom directed by Omung Kumar where Priyanka Chopra played Mary) also made me popular. Now they know more about me. Now, I have the recognition. Earlier, the recognition wasn’t in every corner of India. Of course, if it is a film, it will have some masala. (Laughs) Only five-10 per cent is masala, the rest is real, but I felt my hard work or my effort didn’t really get translated on screen.
The source of strength…
You have to derive strength from within. My achievement is my idea of women’s empowerment. Women are slowly getting empowered. Manipur was always a little different because women run the show there. A lot of women want to be like me, but it hasn’t been easy. So many sacrifices. I had to stop nursing my babies pretty soon. That’s a huge sacrifice, but nobody can stop me.
My kids (twin sons Khupneivar and Rechungvar, and son Prince Chungthanglen) miss me, but they say, ‘My mom is a boxing champion’. They tell their friends too.
Mary, the mom…
Whenever I have time at home, I am with my kids... playing and taking care of them. They are happy to have me around. I don’t see my kids becoming boxers. They are very big football fans… (Lionel) Messi and Neymar.
When I cook, my kids really enjoy the food. They love non-vegetarian food. I like eating Manipuri food the most. I can cook everything. I am a mother (laughs). My kids love everything! So, I have to prepare the food.
Whenever I am travelling or preparing for my upcoming tournaments, I don’t have much time to spend with them. Sometimes they really miss me. I understand but I keep telling them that they have to also understand that I am doing all this not only for myself, but also for them. Actually, mainly for them. Whatever money or fame I have got, it is dedicated to them and for their future, so that they can easily afford things.
In our time, how much we suffered financially! I keep motivating them. I keep telling my kids that what I have done is not easy. It has been difficult for me.
I keep them updated where I am going. I take back gifts for them and then they are happy. I also want to be with them all the time. I don’t have the time… what to do?! Later on, I won’t have these opportunities or the platform. This is the right time. If I cannot capitalise on this now, who knows what will happen in the future? Now is the time to go all out and achieve my dreams and give it my all.
The next goal…
I am of course targeting the next Olympics (Tokyo; 2020). This is a very important year for me. We have the qualification round… the world championship actually… from my side I will give it whatever I have. If I qualify, very good! I will feel very happy. Yes, I am preparing for the medal of 2020! (Laughs out loud)
Her message for the youth…
We should educate them and guide them in different ways which they are lacking in. They are easily satisfied. I see young girls and boys trying for the medal once and after winning that, there is no effort to get it a second time. That cannot happen. If you want to continue for long, this kind of a mental make-up will not help. You have to be humble, down to earth and respectful towards your elder sisters, brothers and coaches. You need to have that discipline. Some girls when they meet me for the first time, they are like: ‘Good morning di’, the next time: ‘Good morning’ and the third time: ‘Good morning, Mary!’ Their attitude is: ‘I am equal to you’. Performance-wise they are nothing in front of me. No one can match my achievements.