Short bursts, long goal
Italian coach Raffaele Bergamasco wants to replicate his success with the youth team, eyeing at least three medals at the forthcoming AIBA Women's World Boxing Championships
On some mornings these days, you may find M.C. Mary Kom on the running track at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi. She’s running 100m, 200m, and 400m sprints and, sometimes, even full laps of the ground. The 35-year-old is always among the top three, even while competing with boxers about 15 years younger than her, as they prepare for the AIBA Women World Championships (15-24 November) in the Capital.
The sprints are just one part of the high-intensity training module formulated by performance director Raffaele Bergamasco for the tournament, which will be held at Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium’s KD Jadhav Hall and will feature 10 boxers in different weight categories. “We are focusing on shorter training timings that are high and explosive on power," says Bergamasco. For years, Indian pugilists have followed a pattern of training that includes daily long hours of an activity like gymming, sparring or running. “But what’s the point?" asks Bergamasco. “They are not runners. Why do they do need to run for an hour? Why do they need to spar for an hour if the rounds are only 2 minutes long?"
Bergamasco has essentially installed the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) system for the boxers. One of the drills, initially hated by the boxers, included 20 push-ups, followed by a 1- minute run on an incline, and 2 minutes of shadow boxing to wrap one round up. Only a minute’s break to catch your breath and the boxers had to be back on their feet for the next round. There were 14 of these at one go that had the athletes fatigued. But they’ve warmed up to it now, and some have even become fans of it. Bergamasco has coached India’s youth women boxers since 2016 to successful World Championships last year where India topped the medals tally with five golds and two bronzes. To expect him to repeat the same success with the seniors would be incorrect and unfair.
The World Championships is one of the tournaments that will help determine seeding for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Sarita Devi, who won her only world championship title in Delhi in 2006, says she is enjoying her training for the first time in decades. “We used to work like donkeys," says the veteran who will fight in the 60kg category. “Even now the workload is very high, but my body feels lighter. Coach also points out where I am going wrong." Devi’s punching, for instance, has always been very hard, often resulting in her losing her balance. Bergamasco pointed out this flaw to her after they filmed her training for days and analysed the videos.
For Devi and Kom, who are the only two boxers left from the last time India hosted the World Championships, the difference is stark. Back in 2006, the tournament was held at Delhi’s Talkatora Stadium. The training and accommodation facilities were bare minimum. “There were no fans where we were living," Devi recollects. “There was a cooler in the room that stopped working when there was a power cut, which was often. We had to cool the floors down with buckets of water to be able to sleep." Services like a physiotherapist, a doctor, a psychologist, a nutritionist—all part of the current camp—were out of the question.
While the set-up, environment and facilities are vastly different from 2006, the one thing that hasn’t changed in 12 years is India’s No.1 medal contender for the tournament—M.C. Mary Kom. And while that’s a testimony to the five-time world champion’s incredible work ethic, fitness and motivation levels, it also raises questions about Indian boxing’s bench strength. Kom has been in good nick this year, winning gold medals at the India Open, Commonwealth Games, and the Silesian Boxing Championships in Poland. She chose to skip the Asian Games. But at both (Commonwealth and Asian Games) tournaments, none of the other boxers managed a podium finish. “These results need to be taken seriously," the London Olympics bronze medallist says. “Systems need to be checked to understand where these girls can improve."
The systems are changing indeed, with the Boxing Federation of India’s stress on exposure trips and scientific training. While seniors like Kom and Devi have had to unlearn some things, for the youngsters, it is easier. “These girls are blessed that they have better guidance, and are learning the right things at the correct age," Kom says. One of the brightest medal prospects is 20-year-old Manisha Moun, who will be competing in the 54kg category.
The Haryana girl won silver at the tournament in Poland, and being a part of a World Championship squad is a dream come true. Nobody in her family in Kaithal, except her mother, knew of it when Moun started going to boxing classes a few years ago. “Papa wouldn’t allow me for sure," she says. “So I made sure whatever training I had to do, I finished everything and returned home by the time he was back in the evening." It was only two years into her training when she won gold in the state sub-junior championships title and her name and photo appeared in the papers. “Ab toh khel hee le (now you might as well continue playing)," was what her father said, much to the young boxer’s relief. “Manisha’s height is a huge bonus," Bergamasco says. “And the greatest quality she has the ability to be flexible and change her game plan and strategy in the middle of a bout."
Bergamasco isn’t a fan of predicting results at all, but is eyeing three medals from this time’s outing, which will be a major improvement from the previous edition of the tournament where India finished with just one medal—Sonia Lather’s silver in the 57kg weight category. If he manages to meet that goal, Bergamasco might finally reward himself by stepping out of the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium. “It will be a big thing, yes," he says. “I have not gone to any place in Delhi outside this stadium so far because my goal is to get medals from the World Championships. For months I have been inside, and that is okay. First, we have to meet the target, and it’s not going to be easy."