Sign up for podcast updates and more!
Once upon a time, there was a girl who grew up to be the most successful boxer in India’s history. Her name was Mary Kom. Mary was an energetic child who was naturally drawn towards sports. So she enrolled herself in a sports academy where she discovered her love of boxing, but her trainers thought she was too small. Still, Mary sparred until she improved her technique, showing up early and staying late to train. She was terrified her parents would stop her, but they eventually grew to be her biggest supporters. With her nation and family’s support, Mary boxed her way to the Olympic Games and inspired generations to come.
Poorna Jagannathan is an award-winning actress and producer. Critically acclaimed for her performance on HBO’s “The Night Of,” Jagannathan can be seen in season 2 of HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” Hulu’s “The Act” and “Ramy.” Jagannathan is the winner of the 2013 Amnesty International Award for the play “Nirbhaya” by Yael Farber, which she initiated, produced and acted in. The play was called by The Telegraph as “One of the most powerful pieces of theater you’ll ever see.”
Once upon a time, there was a girl who dreamed of pulling her family out of poverty. Her name was Mary.
Mary was born in Manipur, India, and every day she helped her father plow the rice paddies of the wealthier landowners.
When Mary was old enough, her father insisted that she must attend school. He believed that the only way out of poverty for his children was through education.
Mary walked herself to school every day, avoiding the treacherous potholes of Manipur’s backroads. When sharp rocks pierced the soles of her shoes, her mother repaired them by melting the rubber soles back together with a pair of red hot metal tongs.
Mary’s home had no electricity and because her family couldn’t afford candles, she did her homework by the light of homemade lamps that produced more smoke than light. She worked hard to study as fast as possible and complete all her homework before the sun set.
Mary fully committed to her studies, but her true passion was in sports. When she turned fifteen, she begged to train at a well-respected sports academy in the capital city several hours away from their home.
After months of heated discussion, Mary’s father finally conceded. He would allow her to go as long as she completed her schoolwork, held a part-time job, and stayed with extended family in the city.
The sports academy offered training in many different sports, but it didn’t take Mary long to discover that there was one sport in particular that she really loved: boxing.
I’m POORNA JAGANNATHAN. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. A fairy tale podcast about the women who inspire us.
This week: Mary Kom.
<END THEME MUSIC>
Not many women boxed, but once Mary experienced the thrill and joy of being in the ring –– her gloves hitting the bag, the sound of the bell between rounds –– she knew she’d found her sport.
She began to train relentlessly, never mentioning the sport to her parents during their weekly phone calls because she knew they wouldn’t approve. For the first time Mary was grateful for the distance between them –– she didn’t have to hide her bruises or explain her sore hands.
Because most girls were in a higher weight class, she sparred with the younger boys instead. She wasn’t as tall or as heavy as some of the other students, but she was eager to learn and her punches were powerful. She showed up early and stayed late everyday, working on her footwork, guards, jabs, hooks, and uppercuts.
And that practice paid off.
Day after day, Mary improved. As the months passed, her footwork became faster and her punches became unyielding. Eventually, she began entering tournaments. And she started to win.
One day Mary’s father was riding his bicycle home when he overheard two men discussing the newspaper.
“Can you believe a girl from this village won the State Boxing Championship?”
Mary’s father stopped and asked to see their newspaper. To his astonishment, printed in black and white was a photo of his daughter, boxing in the championship ring.
When Mary’s father called her home, she knew her secret was out. She rode her bike the several hours home and, as the noise of the city disappeared behind her, Mary practiced what she would say to her worried parents.
When she arrived, her father begged her to stop boxing. “What if you’re injured? We don’t have the money to pay for a doctor!” he said.
Mary told them about the protective gear she wore in the ring: gloves, mouthguard, and headgear.
“Who will marry you with a battered and bruised face?” her father argued back. “You’ll never have children!”
While she wasn’t interested in marriage, she assured her parents that she would protect her face.
Mary’s parents would only agree to her continued training under one condition: she had to dedicate herself completely to boxing. No more working part-time.
Mary protested, knowing that her parents didn’t have the money to pay for her food or equipment. But they promised that, if she trained hard, they would find a way. Her parents’ sacrifice inspired a new resolve in her.
The 20×20 feet of the boxing ring became her entire universe.
WINS & LOSSES
Mary began competing all over the country. One day, on the train to a tournament, Mary was robbed. When she called her parents in tears, they told her not to worry and continue with her training. Mary was devastated but she listened to her parents and focused on her training. Her mother and father worked long hours until they were able to repay her losses.
Grateful for her parents’ support, she was not willing to risk theft again. On the next train ride, Mary brought a heavy, iron chain and locked her belongings to her wrist –– This will stop any thief she thought to herself. Feeling confident and safe, Mary drifted off to sleep as the train rolled along.
But when Mary woke up, she discovered the iron chain had been cut and this time, everything she owned had been stolen: her clothes, her money, her boxing equipment, and, worst of all, her passport.
Without her passport, Mary couldn’t compete in the upcoming international competitions. Desperate, she called her parents a second time.
They did everything they could to help her, even selling their pet cow to raise money for a new passport—which was an enormous expense for them. But they managed to scrape together the money in a nick of time, and her dear friend Onler volunteered to deliver it right to Mary’s hands.
As a thank you for her parents’ unwavering support, she used her first cash prize to buy a small piece of land for her family –– her father would no longer be a poor farmer renting land from the wealthy. Her family would now have a steady income and a permanent place to call home.
MARRIAGE & PREGNANCY
Mary won bout after bout and began to build a name for herself as a champion. People began calling her “Magnificent Mary.”
As Mary’s popularity grew, men begged to marry her. Her parents suggested that perhaps it was time to step away from boxing, accept one of these proposals, and start a family.
Mary did not agree. She was in her early twenties and felt that getting married would mean the end of her boxing career. She wasn’t looking to get married even if men were looking to marry her.
So she did the only thing she could do: she called Onler.
Onler had been her confidant for years. Whether she won or lost, he was always the first person she would call.
As Mary spoke into the static-filled line of the hotel phone, lamenting to Onler about the pressure from her parents to get married, they realized together that the answer was clear. They cared for each other, they supported each other, and they truly loved each other. Onler had been unwavering in his support of her boxing career and she knew there was no better partner for her.
Mary didn’t want a grand proposal or a fancy engagement ring, she wanted to marry her best friend, and in 2005 that’s just what she did.
Mary continued to fight and train, always calling Onler from the road. But two years into married life, Mary discovered she was pregnant with twins. While she was delighted to start her family with Onler, she still did not want her boxing career to end.
After their twin boys were born, Onler, took over all the domestic duties of raising their infant sons and running their home so Mary could return to boxing.
RETURN TO BOXING
Not everyone was as supportive of her return to boxing as Onler. Her family began saying: “Haven’t you won enough already? Just retire.”
Mary’s body had changed in the two years she had been away from boxing. She knew she would need to return to training camps to regain her strength.
Before leaving home Mary looked back at her display case where she kept all the newspaper clippings, metals, and trophies she had won. She had already gained money, became famous, and started a family. Why did she need to keep boxing?
Because she loved it.
Mary remembered her training motto: discipline, dedication, determination. She knew she was still “Magnificent Mary.”
When Mary arrived at her first training camp to condition her body, she could tell that the other boxers no longer considered her a serious competitor.
This realization stung. She missed her children terribly and had to work harder than ever to get back into shape. Every day Mary fought the urge to throw her gloves down and give up completely.
After training for just a few short weeks, Mary began competing in tournaments. Even though she was winning medals, she was bringing home more silver than gold, and critics continued to doubt her, especially her father.
“Maybe you should have stopped boxing while you were on top,” he said. “Do you want to end your career in disgrace?”
Mary used this criticism as fuel –– it brought out the champion fighter in her.
Mary trained continuously and, with every tournament she entered, her drive increased to regain her championship title.
Mary set her sights on the Olympics. She wanted to win the gold medal in women’s boxing and bring that honor home to India. She focused on her diet and weight training to build more power behind her punches.
Finally, after months of relentless training, Mary qualified for the 2012 London Olympics.
Dressed in blue and white, Mary entered the Olympic stadium. She had to win 3 fights to make it to the gold medal match. She won her first two fights, taking several punches to the face before winning both.
Then she came up against Nicola Adams from Great Britain; this final bout would determine who will fight for the gold in the final match. The sound of the crowd carried through the darkened stadium –– only one bright spotlight illuminated the boxing ring.
Mary imagined herself back in her childhood home, studying under the light of a kerosene lamp. She felt her training in her bones and knew she was ready. Pulling on her boxing gloves, Mary stepped into the ring.
From the first bell, Mary fought her hardest. Every punch thrown her way, Mary dodged or blocked. She weaved in and out of her opponent’s reach, landing as many stinging blows as she could. But in the end, the heavier and taller woman overpowered Mary.
Despite Mary’s incredible skill, she placed third. Standing on the winners’ podium during the awards ceremony, with the bronze medal around her neck, Mary burned with humiliation –– she had worked so hard to bring the gold medal back to India and she had failed.
For the first few days after the Olympics, Mary felt totally defeated, until she heard one of her boxing coaches talking to a reporter: “Mary held her own in the ring. She boxed the gold medal winner and didn’t get a scratch on her. This is a huge victory. We are very proud to be bringing an Olympic medal back to India.”
Until that moment, Mary hadn’t even realized that she was now an Olympic medalist –– every athlete’s dream. Despite her initial feelings, Mary’s Olympic bronze medal became the most prized possession of her entire career.
When Mary returned home, she was received with a thunderous warm welcome. Everyone in Manipur was proud to embrace the best boxer in India.
Movie stars, talk show hosts, and politicians invited her to spend time with them. As she taxi’d from one event to the other, the radio played a song written for her “Mary Kom Champion.” She received countless sponsorships, saving enough to afford several houses for herself and her family. But despite her sudden fame, Mary remained grounded.
Mary wanted to give back, and what better way than training the next generation of boxers? Out of respect for her achievements, the local government provided Mary with three acres of land to open her own boxing academy where she still trains students today.
Mary tells her boxers, “I am a ‘nobody’ who became a sports icon only because of my hard work. My life is a message: nothing is impossible.”