Karnam Malleswari: the woman who lifted India up

India’s first female Olympic medallist carried a lot in and out of competition.

You've probably heard of the likes of PV Sindhu or Sakshi Malik and their exploits on the world stage that have given India countless reasons to be proud. But the trailblazer of them all was Karnam Malleswari.

Having won her first world title in weightlifting two years before PV Sindhu was even born, Karnam Malleswari was the first Indian woman to have clinched an Olympic medal — an achievement that set the ball rolling for the likes of Sindhu, Malik and others to follow.

A supportive start

Few in the sleepy little hamlet of Voosavanipeta in Andhra Pradesh would have dreamt that the little girl born in their midst on the 1st of June 1975 would go on to single-handedly put their tiny community on the world map. But as if the date of her birth was a sign from destiny, Karnam Malleswari knew early on that coming first would be her trademark.

She started young, beginning her training in the physically challenging sport of weightlifting at just 12, under the tutelage of coach Nallamshetty Appanna, and later Belarusian weightlifter Leonid Taranenko who, at the time, held the record for the 266kg clean and jerk in 1988.

Taranenko was already coaching Malleswari’s 19-year-old sister, a national level participant by then, and in Karnam too, he saw tremendous potential. That faith was also shared by her parents, including her father — a college-level football player himself, who realised their daughter had found her true calling in life.

They never once questioned her endeavours nor did they suggest she follow the beaten path of a doctor or engineer that so many parents prefer their children stick to. Their support saw Karnam Malleswari make her way to Delhi, where she soon came under the notice of the Sports Authority of India and it wasn’t long before she was able to win a medal and further successes came calling.

Karnam Malleswari won a historic podium place at Sydney 2000
Karnam Malleswari won a historic podium place at Sydney 2000Karnam Malleswari won a historic podium place at Sydney 2000

Plaudits and parenthood

In 1993, Karnam Malleswari placed third in the World Championships and followed that up with a series of world titles in the 54kg division in 1994 and 1995, before finishing third again in 1996. She fell just short of gold medals twice at the Asian Games, nabbing two silvers at the 1994 and 1998 editions, and in 1999, she was awarded the Padma Shri and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna awards.

Whilst picking up these tremendous accolades, she got married to fellow weightlifter Rajesh Tyagi, and the couple were blessed with a son in 2001.

Before that though came her crowning glory: the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

But the lead-up to her historic moment was not without its difficult moments.

Coming under criticism

As Karnam Malleswari prepared to compete at the Games, a leading Indian publication put out an article questioning her drinking habits and calling her out of shape.

But the flak only fueled her determination.

Karnam Malleswari went on to become the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal, bagging the bronze medal in the 69kg category and shutting down the critics.

The achievement brought tremendous recognition and led to the public dubbing her ‘The Iron Lady’. Young girls across the nation were inspired by her success and it opened the floodgates for future female Olympic medallists like Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal to rush through with confidence.

Following that, Karnam Malleswari took time out to embrace motherhood in 2001, and the following year, announced her plans to compete in the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games. Tragically, the unfortunate demise of her father led to her backing out of those plans.

She tried again, at the 2004 Olympics, but a lack of results finally made her call it a career and take up the family life full-time. Working for the Food Corporation of India, she currently resides happily with her husband in Yamunanagar but is to this day, still nagged by thoughts of what could have been.

Mixed memories

In a frank conversation with Time Magazine's Meenakshi Ganguly, Karnam Malleswari brought up the aforementioned turbulent build-up heading into the 2000 Olympics, saying, “I had a chance of winning the gold medal because I had trained very hard. But I did not know whether I would end up going to Sydney or not. I was emotionally disturbed, and it affected my work.”

Despite all of that, her love for weightlifting and a deep-rooted desire to see the sport flourish in the country has led to her founding the Karnam Malleswari Foundation, India's first weighting and powerlifting academy.

Back in 2000, she became a household name after her Olympic triumph. But that fame proved fleeting, and her deeds for her country have seemingly slipped from public memory.

However, history will show that Karnam Malleswari has a special place in Indian sport, lifting expectations on what can be achieved.

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