As a child she loved every kind of sport, but it was boxing that made her feel most ‘alive’. Perhaps because it required a combative atmosphere and provided an outlet for the fighting spirit that defined her. A fighter to the finish, as a child Mary was refused by a coach in the initial days – dismissing her to be too small in frame – but she persisted till he finally gave in and took her on as his student. A mother of three now, the boxer in her still alive, Mary is one of the finest icons for women, men and sports in this country.
G.J. - Your biggest rival at one point was Sarita, another boxer in your weight category. She was almost sent for the Olympics instead of you. Can you tell us about your experience with her?
M.K. - The trials had just gotten over. The next day, some of my friends told me that I had not been selected. I didn’t believe them. Three or four days later, I saw Sarita and her face was shining. So I called up Muralidharan Raja, the Secretary of the Boxing Federation and asked him whether he’d watched both of us carefully. He hadn’t come for the selection trial himself, but he had watched the recording. I asked him to watch it again, as only he could do justice in this case. I knew I deserved it more than she did. Three days later, I called him again and asked what he thought, pointed out that our fight had gone fifty-fifty. He said we would have to do another trial. After the World Championship at Barbados, we came back to Delhi and held the trial the next day. I fought all my National Camp fellows again, and this time, I emerged the winner.
G.J. - Do you think you’ve faced any discrimination in your journey?
M.K. - Yes, it’s happened many times.. But I am a fighter. I’m an Indian. Even if I look different, have a different face and skin colour, I know I am an Indian and I’m proud to be one.
But I also take responsibility for my own fitness. If I’m not fit then I can’t go to National Camp. There are five of us boxers in the same weight category, and only one can be selected to go international.
G.J.- I have heard that family means a lot to you. Could you tell me a little about your family life?
M.K.- It is important, but to be successful, I have had to sacrifice my time with them. I left for training a year after having my twins. I am lucky to have a supportive husband. He takes care of everything in the family so I can focus on my own career.When we met the first time, we were instantly comfortable, treating each other like brother and sister. He has four brothers, and every time I visited their place, we would have lunch and dinner together. He would always drop me home afterwards.I think we are made for each other.We were talking about getting married in 2002. I talked to my family and he talked to his family. My family didn’t want me to get married so soon, but me and Onler both wanted it.
G.J. - Why didn’t your family want it?
M.K. - They were worried about my career. After marriage, most sportspeople’s careers slow down.My father was worried about that. I convinced him that I wouldn’t let it affectmy career.
G.J. -When you went for your first tournament in 2001, boxing was not really recognised as a profitable sport in India.What kept you focused despite the financial issues, lack of emotional and Government support?
M.K. - I loved every kind of sport, and played every kind. But the fighting sports, like boxing, made me come alive.
G.J. - Did you feel at a disadvantage because you only started the sport at the age of 18?
M.K. - There were some disadvantages, but I learned very quickly. I was very active when I was young and I loved martial arts, gymnastics, all of it. I used to learn everything. My body is very flexible. I taught myself a lot. I watched men boxing, and I was very interested in the sport. I started athletics in 1999 and one of my friendstold me that women’s boxing would be introduced in 2000. I asked my friends to ask a coach to train me. At first he refused, saying I was too small. But I was persistent, and finally convinced him.
G.J. - And then you got yourself trained and ready in one year for the world championship! Was it very difficult?
M.K. - It is very difficult. But I was passionate, patient and very interested in being ready for it.
G.J. - How many hours in a day did you train?
M.K. - I trained morning and evening. After morning practice, I would go to school. After I came back, I would practice what I had done in the morning, preparing myself for the evening session. I would train every second, no matter what I was doing.
G.J. - What are the qualities that you think have made you successful?
M.K. - I have always been a very active person, up and about 24 hours a day. In Manipur, my home, I receive about four to five visitors every day.They always want to talk. I try to help them, and my community, with whatever problems they bring me. But now it’s getting hard to do this as I’m running my own academy. I have to look after 30/40 boxers.
G.J. - How do you look after these boxers?
M.K. - I provide them everything—accommodation, food—free of cost. That was rather difficult at first. I couldn’t ask the government for any help because we had no achievements to show. I ran the academy out of my own pocket. Now, after the Olympic Bronze, everyone, including the government, wants to support my efforts.
Things have changed so much after winning that medal. Earlier, I was nothing. Even when I was five-time world champion, no one came home to invite me to anything. Now everyone wants me to be their chief guest, guest of honour. My God! But even in Manipur, you have to pay to be a chief guest or guest of honour —ten thousand, twenty thousand, whatever the organisers want.
G.J. - What inspired you to start this academy?
M.K. - I’m from a poor family and many of students are from similar background. I just want to help them, support them. They have talent. All of them may not be champions, but at least one or two will, and they deserve to have that chance.
G.J. - What qualities you look for in those you train?
M.K. - I’m looking for those who are interested in pursuingboxing as a career. I do have a dream of finding the next Mary Kom!
G.J. - What’s your typical day like?
M.K. - It’s like any normal person’s day. I am up at six. I finish my cooking and then head for practice, by 7:30 or 8. After that I eat lunch, usually around 11. Then I train again till 4/5 in the evening. After I finish my work I might watch a movie, or lie down and listen to music.
G.J. - What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from your journey?
M.K. - I’ve learnt a lot, different lessons from different aspects of my life, and I try to share them with my students. I try to teach them to be humble, to keep their lives in order. I teach them to be independent, to do things for themselves. This will come in handy in both their professional and personal lives.
G.J. - Your story is being adapted into a movie. How does it feel to become such a big star overnight?
M.K. - I am a boxer. That was my one aim and ambition throughout. I was not at all sure about whether I would succeed. I had no idea I would become a celebrity. Later on, I realised what that entailed and how fans are such an important factor in keeping you supported and encouraged. Without their support and love, I could not have become a champion.