Growing up in a state plagued by poverty and insurgency presented many obstacles for a poor woman in an obscure village in Manipur. But Mary Kom overcame them on her way to becoming India's first woman boxer to win an Olympic medal.
India's Mary Kom, a five-time world amateur boxing champion, dreamed of winning Olympic gold in London. Although she fell short – losing to Great Britain's Nicola Adams in the semifinals of the Women's Fly to take home bronze – she still came home a hero.
Her story has captured hearts and minds across India and become a source of pride for the northeastern state of Manipur, where she began her path to athletic glory.
"Mary Kom's story is one of grit and determination in the face of poverty and hunger," Dingko Singh, a gold medallist boxer at the 1998 Asian Games, told Khabar South Asia. "Mary's parents were landless peasants in Manipur. They worked in fields, sometimes even in knee-deep water, and Mary had to offer them a helping hand too.
"The family often found it difficult to make ends meet, and meat or fish was a rare delicacy on the family menu. And on top of this was the threat of militancy dangling like a sword. But Mary was a born sportswoman and she knew exactly where her future lay."
Violent insurgents of various stripes have plagued Manipur for years, although their influence appears to be dwindling. In Mary's village, there were frequent blackouts during which militants would carry out clandestine operations. They killed her father-in-law, Reikhupthang Kamang, in December 2006.
Kamang had been the village head of Samu Lamlan Kom. According to his son, Mary's husband K. Onler Kom, unknown individuals abducted him and later his body was found in a field.
A note found nearby said the Manipur Komrem Revolutionary Front was responsible for the murder and that Kamang was being punished for not acting in the interest of the outfit.
"Following this gruesome incident, fear always stalked Mary's home, but she remained unperturbed as she took to boxing with passion. Undeterred by the militant's threat, she maintained her practice schedule," her first boxing coach, Ibomcha Singh, told Khabar.
Besides the Revolutionary Front, other major insurgent groups in Manipur include the Kuki Liberation Army, the Manipur People's Liberation Front, People's Liberation Army, and the United National Liberation Front.
In 1998, Mary left her hamlet of 300-odd people and moved to the state capital Imphal to take part in javelin and track. It was there that she heard about Singh, whom she asked to be her coach.
It was boxing that would ultimately bring her fame. Like Singh, who is also from Manipur, she won her first medal at the age of 18.
"We had no inkling of her practicing boxing and only came to know about it when we saw her photographs in newspapers and magazines," said her father, Tonpa. "All the while, she was practicing secretly, as boxing was then considered to be a men's sport."
Marriage and motherhood could not slow down the 29-year old champ. She was a three-time world amateur boxing champ before she had twins in 2008, and has since won two more crowns, including one later that year. She defeated Tunisia's Maroum Rahali to clinch her Olympic bronze medal on her twins' birthday as they watched on TV.
Her success has become an inspiration for the youth of Manipur. In 2006, Mary opened a boxing school at her home and a few of her 40-odd students have already won national titles.
Success, too, has brought with it economic well-being. Although her parents still work in the fields, fish and meat are no longer a rare delicacy for them.
Meanwhile, although the hoped-for gold proved elusive this time around, the dream continues.
"I'm happy to win a medal for my country and more so because I'm the first Indian woman boxer to win an Olympic medal. I'm sure my endeavour will inspire the women boxers in India," she told reporters Tuesday (August 14th). "I'm not going to hang up my gloves now. I don't have any intention to retire, and if God permits, I will again contest for the gold medal at the Rio (de Janeiro) Olympics in 2016."