India's Mary feels the pressure
Mary Kom is under pressure as she aims to win one of the first Olympic Games medals awarded in women's boxing.
Kom, one of India's best candidates to win a gold medal at the 2012 London Games, has been training at a remote, hillside academy.
The mother of two, also known as “Magnificent Mary,” is a five-time world champion. She has been spending time in the non-profit academy she established to work with promising young boxers.
A dozen young boxers have been working out with the woman they call Madame Mary. At one point, Kom darts off to say goodbye to her twin five-year-old sons, Rengpa and Naimai, as they leave for school.
She barely has time to pat her two mixed-breed dogs, Bruny and Dolly, on the way back before returning to her routine.
She works in some gruelling training for herself with coach Charles Atkinson. The sessions have helped improve her fitness and technique, she says.
Her recurring line has been: "I'm at my best right now and the Olympics are my biggest dream."
It has been a long journey from her impoverished beginnings in Manipur, a north-eastern province that borders Myanmar and was annexed by India in 1949.
The 29-year-old Kom is praised on TV documentaries, on local news media and internet blogs for encapsulating the essence of women from her region.
A gentle, motherly figure out of the ring, with a lavish ponytail and a penchant for colourful fabrics, she's tenacious once she puts on the gloves.
She often spars with male boxers and considers it good training for the Games, where she will step up in weight to compete because only three women's divisions are being contested.
Kom has won four of her world titles in the 46kg category and one at 48 kg. But she will have to compete in the 51kg class category in London, facing two-time world champion Cancan Ren of China and Nicola Adams of Britain.
"I need to improve on all aspects. I have to work out more and I have to improve mentally. I have seen a lot of videos of my rivals and analyzed them a lot," she says.
She lost to Adams in a quarterfinal bout at the world championships in China last month; a defeat that put her Olympic dream in doubt for a while.
She is undeterred by that foray into the heavier division. The Bible story of David and Goliath, she says, is something she likes to apply to her boxing.
Kom is the eldest of four siblings. She has two sisters and a brother. As a child she worked in the fields to help her parents and took care of her siblings.
She left home to go to school when she was 15, lured by the prospect of achieving something in track and field. That move somehow led her into boxing.
Her coaches remember her as a rakish girl arriving in ragged clothes but an enormous will.
She didn't initially tell her family about the boxing and, even when she did, her father warned her that she might get injured and it could ruin her prospects for marriage. Those fears have been unfounded.
Her husband is among her biggest supporters; something that helps her to remain committed to the sport.
"As a mother, it is very difficult to stay away from my two sons. But I’m glad to have a supporting husband like Onler, who takes care of them in my absence and has been the pillar of my strength," she said recently.
For someone whose aim was just to land a decent job, Mary Kom's success has already exceeded expectations. The state government has given her the grade of an honorary assistant superintendent of police. She has received numerous cash awards over the years and has enough sponsorship and endorsements to support her family.
She was one of six brand ambassadors for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, along with an Indian male boxer, Vijender Singh, who won a bronze medal in the 75kg class at the Beijing Olympics.
Both were also named as face-cream brand ambassadors this month; a rarity in a country where cricketers hog most endorsements.
"It is obvious that people will expect a medal from me," she said recently. "Also, this is the first time women's boxing is included at Olympics, so I want to create history and make my country proud.
"I was shattered when I lost in the [world championships] quarterfinals. My dream of competing at the Olympics almost came to an end.
"Winning and losing is part of the game, but I didn't expect that loss to come at such a crucial time. When I learnt I have qualified for London, I was blank for a moment. Pressure at the Olympics will be less, compared with the qualification tournament."
BOXING AS A FITNESS SPORT
The profile of boxing in India has soared since Singh won a medal in China. A few more medals in London could make it the most followed Olympic sport in a country where field hockey has long held that status.
"I feel all eight of our boxers have a realistic chance of winning medals and boost the sport in the country," says Indian Boxing Federation secretary-general Muralidharan Raja.
He also hopes success in London will help promote boxing in India as a fitness sport.
"People could take to boxing as a non-contact sport. It could be instilled at the junior levels to improve health and grace in individuals with athletes only prasticing its movements without sparring," he said.
"There is tremendous potential for boxing in the country as we will see after the Olympics and we are all ready to tap it."