Indian sportswomen have been the pride of the country!
Saina Nehwal created history by winning the first medal in badminton at Olympics, 2012 — MC Mary Kom won a bronze in the first edition of women’s boxing at the Olympics — Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu won bronze and silver respectively, India’s only medals in Olympics 2016.
All of this though would not have been possible without the inspiration and immense self-confidence that weightlifter Karnam Malleswari gave Indian women at the Sydney Games in 2000.
The legendary Indian weightlifter earned a bronze medal on September 19, 2000, to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal.
Karnam Malleswari came from a family of sportspeople. Her father Karnam Manohar was a college-level football player while her four sisters had taken to weightlifting. But ironically, it was her mother Shyamala, the only non-sporting person in the family, who encouraged Karnam Malleswari to pursue a dream.
The story goes that a 12-year-old Karnam had been turned away by coach Neelamshetty Appanna, who taught weightlifting at a local gymnasium in the small town of Voosavanipeta, Andhra Pradesh because she was deemed too thin and weak for the sport.
However, Karnam’s mother gave belief to the disheartened youngster. “She told me that if I felt bad about people doubting my ability, then I should prove them wrong by going out there and pursuing weightlifting,” said Karnam Malleswari, who started training on her own soon after.
The turning point
The turning point for Karnam Malleswari, however, came at a national camp ahead of the 1990 Asian Games, which incidentally the Indian weightlifter was not a part of.
She had tagged along as a visitor with her elder sister Krishna Kumari, who had been selected to the camp. It was here that Karnam Malleswari was spotted by Olympic and world champion Leonid Taranenko, who coached the Indian weightlifters.
Taranenko noticed Karnam keenly observing the proceedings, so he approached her and asked her to do a few drills. It was enough to convince him of her talent, and he immediately recommended Karnam to the Bangalore Sports Institute.
In her first junior national weightlifting championships in 1990, Karnam Malleswari broke nine national records in the 52kg category and a year later, she won silver in her maiden senior national championship.
It was the start of the golden period in Karnam Malleswari’s career.
Becoming the champion
Before long success came calling, Malleswari placed third in the World Championships in 1993 and then followed up with consecutive 54kg world titles in 1994 and 1995, before bookending her run with another third-place effort in 1996. She is also the first Indian woman weightlifter to win gold at the World Championships.
A women’s weightlifting event was then added for the first time at the Olympics at Sydney 2000.
Though all eyes were on Karnam, not many gave her a chance because she had not won a World Championship medal since 1996. Moreover, she had also shifted to the 69kg, a category she had never competed in at the world stage.
However, Karnam Malleswari loved proving people wrong, and she did so once again in Sydney. A gold may have been lost, but it gave Karnam Malleswari an Olympic bronze medal in what was her first trip to the Games. History had been created, and the country celebrated a new hero.
“I was not affected by what people said about me. I know what I should do and what I should not. I have to participate in the competition, go on to the stage and lift the weight,” she told Sportstar after the extraordinary feat.
The historic achievement made her an instant household name and the masses named her ‘The Iron Lady’. She remains, till date, the only Indian woman weightlifter to have won an Olympic medal.
Ending the career
Malleswari was planning to make a comeback at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. However, the unfortunate demise of her father halted those plans. She devised another return, at the 2004 Olympics in Greece, but a severe back injury meant that she was not at her best and she called it quits after that event.
As it turned out, Karnam Malleswari’s Olympic medal turned out to be her last international medal. But it had given her a lasting legacy, and her achievement became the springboard on which more Indian women brought laurels for India.
Along the way, she was conferred with numerous prestigious awards by the Indian government, including the Arjuna Award (1994), Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna (1999), and the Padma Shri (1999).
Aside from that, Malleswari also founded the Karnam Malleswari Foundation, first-of-its-kind weightlifting, and powerlifting academy to see her beloved sport flourish in India.
“I feel proud to have created this pathway for our girls and to see them winning Olympic medals. Some even tell me today, ‘Ma’am you started it all’, so I feel delighted to have changed the perception.”