Linthoi Chanambam is no stranger to drama. With a minute and 28 seconds to go in her final bout (57kg) at the World Cadets Championships in Sarajevo last week, her coach, Mamuka Kizilashvili was ejected from the touchline for his vociferous protests. Chanambam was up a Waza-ari—the second-highest score that is awarded in judo—at this point. But with her mentor missing by her side, she now had to hold off her opponent, Brazil’s Bianca Reis, on her own.
“I always look for his reaction when the bout stops to understand what I need to do next. So it left me really confused when I looked in his direction and realised he wasn’t there,” Chanambam says. As the referee announced the end of the bout, she cried out in relief. At just 16 years, Chanambam had picked up gold—the first by an Indian judoka at any world championship. “I didn’t expect any medals. At the same time, I didn’t think about winning or losing. I just felt really confident and wanted to go out and give my best. Because I know nobody trains more than me,” Chanambam says.
The drama was of a different kind around five years ago, when Chanambam was eleven, the start of a journey that would change her life. She was participating in the sub-junior national championship in Telangana, when she was approached by Kizilashvili. The Georgian had seen her potential and was willing to take her under his wing at the Inspire Institute of Sport (IIS) in Bellary. However, the idea of Chanambam staying away from home at that tender age was a source of distress to her father, Ibohal Singh.
“It was a very funny sight,” Kizilashvili recalls. “Her father couldn’t stop crying. And for a moment I thought—why am I doing this?” He even considered dropping the idea and let Chanambam remain with her father.
“Back home, I would be around him all the time. We would eat every meal together and I would sleep by his side. I’m very close to my father, so it was really difficult for him,” Chanambam says. It was her father who encouraged Chanambam and her two sisters to play. But it was Chanambam who was truly at home on the field. Football and boxing was more of a pass-time in her hometown of Mayang in Manipur. Chanambam remembers playing mostly with boys, open to any challenge thrown at her.
“I had few friends who were girls. I was really naughty and used to regularly pick fights with the boys. My parents had to even take a few to the hospital on certain occasions,” Chanambam says, giggling. “Since we are three sisters, I was always considered to be the boy in the family. They supported me all the time,” she adds.
It was at her father’s insistence that she first took up judo at a nearby academy in 2014. The sport was popular in her village and there were a few local role models to look up to. Chanambam too wanted to be like them.
During a scouting trip to Manipur in September 2017, Kizilashvili first spotted Chanambam’s prowess on the mat. Though really young, he saw the right body language and kept an eye out for her ever since. “Firstly, I was surprised to see that Manipur had a judo culture. As a coach, you notice certain aspects of an athlete—how they walk, run, their body balance and the coordination. Chanambam had it all and she was at an age where she could be moulded and readied for the future,” he says.
At IIS’s residential facility, the duo started working on refining her technique. As early as age 13, Chanambam was included as part of the Khelo India Scheme. And after the pandemic-induced break, the results followed.
Last year, she picked up her first international medals: a silver at the Asia-Oceania Junior Championships, and bronze at the Asia-Oceania Cadet Championships. Then last month, she took gold at the Asian Cadet and Junior Championships in Bangkok.
Chanambam carried her form into the World Cadet Championships. She dominated her first four bouts via Ippon—the highest score in judo—before holding off Reis’ challenge in the final.
“Reis finished fifth at the World Juniors just two weeks ago. And she’s a lot more experienced than Linthoi. I’m not happy because she won gold—it’s about the way she did it, a thorough professional,” Kizilashvili says.
Chanambam feels relieved at having achieved both her targets for the year—gold at the Asian and the World Championships. She’s now looking forward to a well-earned break with her family in Manipur, before getting back to the grind.
Towards the end of the year, Kizilashvili wants to field her against junior and senior opponents to gain an understanding of her abilities. And once the calendar is announced next year, he wants Chanambam to feature in strong events to gather qualifying points for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. “I don’t know if I’m ready for Paris, but I’ll try my best. But I’m certainly looking forward to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles,” Chanambam says.
“My idol, Majlinda Kelmendi, was the first athlete to win a gold medal for Kosovo at the Olympics in 2016. And I want to be the first woman to win gold for India at the Olympics,” she adds. In the time ahead, there’s certainly more drama in store, each time Chanambam takes the mat.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.