Until earlier this week, there was no road that led up to Lovlina Borgohain’s house in the remote village of Baromukhia in Assam’s Golaghat district. But as the boxer returns triumphantly after clinching a bronze at the Tokyo Games, how much do we know about Assam’s first female pugilist to qualify for the Olympics?
From a remote village in the Northeast to a podium finish at her Olympic debut, Borgohain’s journey has been nothing short of inspirational. Borgohain currently remains the lone athlete to return with a medal out of a nine-member contingent that qualified, and local media has reported that construction of the road connecting her house has now begun. As India celebrates her win and the Hindi film industry presumably gears up for yet another sports biopic, here’s what you need to know about the double Worlds bronze medallist.
Born to a small tea plantation owner Tiken and homemaker Mamoni, financial constraints were not foreign to Borgohain and her sisters Lima and Licha. However, the district’s unique tryst with sports culture and her mother’s progressive attitude towards the girls learning self-defense enabled them all to become notable kickboxers.
Her father has spoken to the media of her dogged determination from a young age. Just teenagers at the time, the sisters would cycle 3-4kms of mud and stone roads to Barpathar to train in Muay Thai. Like many younger women in the field, Borgohain cites London Olympics bronze medallist Mary Kom as one of her primary role models and said that she started boxing after watching her.
Giving it her all
In 2012, Borgohain was spotted during a scouting run by coach Padam Boro, who runs the boxing program at the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Guwahati center. Even at the cusp of a big break, she battled not just the decision of leaving home, but also the exhausting gendered stigmas associated with a physically taxing sport like boxing. Her family has constantly recalled times when the family was pitied for bearing three girls (or ‘liabilities’, as orthodox thinkers like to refer to them), with a father who stayed far away for work.
Bolstered by her mother, however, Borgohain went on to win gold with a bare minimum training in her first sub-junior nationals in Kolkata. While her techniques within the ring have refined vastly since her rookie days, Borgohain’s battles outside the ring always demanded the most of her.
Lacking a red corner kit two months into the boxing program at the SAI center, she agreed to a hard trade of her mobile phone with another player who had lost their bout. What made this trade difficult was the fact that the phone was Borgohain’s only way to communicate with her family back home. The promised kit, however, was never given.
When most of her peers rushed to the national camp in Patiala post the first phase of COVID-19 in July last year, Borgohain remained busy attending to her mother, who underwent a kidney transplant in Kolkata. At the time, the lack of connectivity in most of Northeast India forced people to rush to the metropolis in West Bengal for basic healthcare.
As the family’s already limited finances dwindled, Lovlina didn’t hesitate to give the entire prize money from her Arjuna award for her mother’s treatment. She continued to visit her mother as much as she could. However, it ended with her testing positive for COVID-19 a day before she was scheduled to leave with the Olympic-qualified group for a 52-day training trip to Europe. The exposure offered in the trip would have been crucial, given that the pandemic had wreaked havoc in the boxers' attempts at preparation. During her bout with the virus, she also sustained a leg injury, which added another obstacle on the road to compete.
What goes through the mind of a 23-year-old preparing all by herself for the Tokyo Games? For Borgohain, lying in wait for her training equipment was apparently not an option. In another interview, her family has spoken of her training with an empty LPG cylinder while she waited.
Despite a career studded with several accolades at different levels, Lovlina has always sought to be close to her roots. “Working in a paddy field is not a new thing for her. She has been doing this for a long time. We have told her to not do it but she says it helps her to stay connected with the roots,” Tiken has told the media.
With the Olympic silverware illuminating a brighter path ahead for all aspiring women from Baromukhia and more, Borgohain is left to bask in her moment of glory whilst preparing to make good on her promise to bring home gold in the Paris Games 2024.
(Edited by Sanhati Banerjee)