Retired Indian weightlifter, Karnam Malleswari, was the first speaker at the 13th edition of the DD Kosambi Festival of Ideas which is on at Kala Academy, Panaji. The first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics in 2000, Malleswari previously won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, India’s highest sporting honour in 1995, and the civilian Padma Shri award in 1999 for her contribution to sports.
But Malleswari’s journey was not an easy one. Having discovered weightlifting at the gym in her school, she began weightlifting at the age of 12 in her hometown, Andhra Pradesh. “I requested the coach at school if I could join the team but he insulted me saying that I wouldn’t be able to do it and that I should help my mother at home,” she said. But her mother motivated her to pursue something she loves and not let the coach make that decision for her.
“I struggled for two years and then went for the junior nationals in the 1990s. In my first junior nationals I won three gold medals and created nine national records. And then step by step by step I went for the world championship and the medals started coming in,” said Malleswari.
However, in spite of winning all these medals for the country, these were credited to luck and not hard work. “People believed that my medals were lucky and that I was the lucky charm. If I got one, they believed that the rest of the Indian team would surely get a medal,” she said.
But Malleswari was determined to prove these people wrong. “For the next world championship I beat the Chinese, won gold and created a world record and proved myself. And then I went on to win more medals,” said Malleswari.
However, a severe back injury in 1998 almost jeopardised Malleswari’s weightlifting career, but she was determined to participate in the Olympics. “I did not receive any support from the Indian government because sports wasn’t a big thing back then so I worked by myself. Olympics was my dream project. I wanted to win it at any cost because I wanted to make a point to those people who thought that we wouldn’t win,” she said. And Malleswari went on to win that medal.
Owing to an injury, Malleswari later quit the sport in 2004. Sometime later she went on to open a weightlifting academy (K Malleswari Foundation) because she wanted to share her experience with young girls. “I did not know what else to do besides weightlifting and decided to start an academy. As I couldn’t get a medal, I decided that I would help my students get it. But the road was not easy,” said Malleswari. She added that she used the six lakhs that the government gave her after she had won the gold medal to start the academy. Currently the central government is funding a new weightlifting academy by Malleswari which will accommodate over 300 girls.
“Right now the ministers especially the sports minister, is very involved in the development of sports. They also have the best doctors so one shouldn’t worry, they should just focus on sports,” she said, adding that she practices weights in spite of retiring from weightlifting in order to train her students with the weightlifting techniques at the academy. “I still practice weights in order to teach the techniques to my students because verbal training is not enough they need to be shown how to lift in a certain way,” she said.
Malleswari stated that she intends on creating more athletes that will go on to break the records that she has created. “It is very sad that no one has broken my records. I want to create many me’s so that each one is motivated to go ahead and achieve great heights,” she said.
She also stated that the government should take initiatives to motivate students to join sports by creating more academies and gyms in schools. “Most academies start mental and physical training at the age of five but at my academy I start at 12. All that I have given my country is through my experience and I want to share it with the young Indian girls,” said Malleswari. She added that Goa also has immense talent. “I can easily compare my hometown in Andhra Pradesh where I grew up to Goa. Here in Goa they should start a weightlifting academy as Goan children have that talent,” said Malleswari.
A ‘rural’ sport
According to Malleswari there are two types of sports – glamour sports and rural sports. “Sports like tennis, table tennis etc are glamour sports and are famous in metro cities, but sports like athletics, wrestling, boxing, etc are considered rural sports and you need to work hard for this. You have to be physically strong no doubt, but being mentally strong is equally important because you have to train for nearly 12 hours. Rural sports players come from poor families and hence they are motivated,” she said.
Weightlifting, she added, comes with a lot of mental and physical pressure and hence one must learn various techniques to avoid injuries. “There’s a lot of pressure in this sport hence techniques are important in order to avoid injuries but over time you learn to control it. And we are taught how to manage our mental pressure by our coaches,” she said.