Back in 2018, Popy Hazarika came back to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) hostel in Golaghat, Assam with a newspaper advertisement about recruitment in Assam Police and sat down with her friend and room-mate Dimpi Dutta to discuss leaving the hostel and opting for the physical test and recruitment process.
With her mother being the sole bread-winner in the family including her three elder sisters, Popy was worried about the financial aspect and thought about quitting weightlifting for an Assam Police job in an effort to support her family. But as the 23-year-old now aims to win a medal in the women’s 59Kg category at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, she recalls that day when she contemplated giving up the sport to support her family.
“Training kar kar ke thak gayi thi. Bus apni mother ke liye kuch karna chahti thi (I was tired training all the time. I wanted to do something for my mother). That’s why I seriously thought about giving the Assam Police recruitment a try before my friend Dimpi and coaches sat with me and made me think about my weightlifting career. I understood that it’s a long wait in any sport and if my mother can support four of us all these years, I could not leave weightlifting midway,” Popy remembers.
The youngest of four siblings, Popy lost her father at the age of 10 in an electricity mishap at their home in Namti Salkathoni village in Assam’s Sivasagar district. The youngster, who would initially opt for discus and javelin throw at the village school, does not remember much about the fateful day except for relatives and friends coming to their home. Her father worked as a driver and was preparing for the day’s shift when he suffered electric shock while washing the vehicle. “I was playing with my sisters when somebody told that our father had suffered an electric shock while washing his vehicle. When we came out, we saw his body in the water on the road and later were told that he was no more. My mother made sure that we attended school days after our father’s death as she knew that that was the only way we could achieve our dreams.”
A meeting with Dimpi in 2013 would result in Popy accompanying the aspiring weightlifter to the weightlifting hall at the Swahid Peoli Phukan College near their village to train under coach Duljit Boruah. While the youngster would win medals in athletics in her school, mother Dipti picked up a cook’s job at the village school apart from working as a daily wager in rice fields during the paddy season. With the family owning a small piece of land, Dipti would also work on it to make ends meet.
“When my husband died, I knew I had to work for the betterment of my family. I joined the school as a temporary cook with a salary of Rs 2,500 per month and would also work in rice fields on a daily wage of Rs 150-200 to support my daughters. Whatever I could do, I did and any parent could have done the same,” says Dipti.
With coach Boruah training 12 kids with a single weightlifting set, Popy would spend three hours in the morning and three in the evening training with village girls and boys. She would claim a gold medal in a district meet in 2014 and Boruah still remembers how the then 35kg Popy lifted almost her body weight. “Popy’s height was good at a young age and since she competed in athletics earlier, she did not face any difficulty in the running sessions before training. The main problem was lack of proper diet which hampered her weightlifting training initially. We would often contribute to get supplements for the kids. Even though there was only one set for training, she would train after the other kids left. When she became the district champion lifting 30 kg in snatch and 40 kg in clean and jerk, she kept the medal in her pocket to show it to her mother first,” remembers the coach.
With Dimpi too having lost her father at an early age, the duo would often spend time together and Dimpi often picking Popy from her village on her bicycle to go for training. A year later, both of them were selected through a talent hunt scheme and were enrolled at SAI Training Centre, Golaghat. It also meant that the duo didn’t have to worry about their diet and training but would often save money to travel back to their village.
“I too lost my father at a young age. So, when Popy approached me to join weightlifting at the village, I wanted to help her. Sometimes, I would pick her up in rains from her village for training and sometimes, she would bring home-made chicken for me from her home. When we shifted to the SAI hostel, both of us knew that we had to save money. We would share our kits, shoes, balms and other things to save money and would travel by train waiting for more than six hours at the station sometimes to save money. A lot of times, we would think about quitting too but would encourage each other,” remembers Dimpi.
The following years would see Popy becoming state champion in Tezpur in 2016 before she won a silver in the 59kg category at the Junior Nationals in Nagpur in 2018 with a snatch record of 84Kg. The youngster lifted a total of 187Kg. It was a medal, which made SAI coach Om Prakash Kalyani raise his hopes about the youngster and till his transfer in early 2019, he would train Popy at the Golaghat centre.
“When she became state champion in the 48Kg category, she picked 50Kg in snatch and 60kg in clean and jerk. Her advantage was her height and the initial speed with which she lifted the bar. She was a natural athlete and would train on her own during running drills for building stamina. The only problem I faced as a coach was the need to motivate her constantly. We knew it was very tough for her family and like any youngster, she would also melt down. But then we would always talk about the next medal, which still remains the case,” remembers Kalyani.
Since then, Popy has won a silver at the Senior Nationals in Kolkata in 2020 where she lifted a total of 202Kg (94 in snatch and 108 in clean and jerk) in the 59Kg category followed by a silver at the Senior Nationals in Patiala last year with a total lift of 189 Kg. She then won a gold at the Senior Nationals in Orissa, where she lifted a total of 187Kg (87 in snatch and 110 in clean and jerk). Last year, she went to her first international competition – the Commonwealth Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent, where she won the silver medal with a total loft of 189Kg (84+105). Earlier this year, Popy won the gold medal in the 61Kg category at the Singapore International. National chief coach Vijay Sharma believes that training at the national camp had made Popy believe in herself.
“Her main strength is that we don’t have to motivate her. She has seen so much struggle that she knows that she has to work hard. Her body weight was a bit less for her height as she did not get proper diet and supplements at a young age. So, our first task was to get her proper weight according to her height. She has an explosive speed in terms of technique but we needed to work on her second pull. As she spends more time in the national camp, I believe she will get more confident as well as move to a higher weight category, which will suit her even more according to her height,” says Sharma.
Prior to joining the national camp, as Covid-19 surged in her state, Popy had to face a tough time at the village. With all the facilities shut, the youngster did not train for more than a month before coach Boruah got her a new weightlifting set to train at home. “We knew that she had to win a medal at the Nationals for a chance in the national camp. I got her a new weightlifting set worth Rs 53,000 from Kolkata from my savings and when she made it to the national camp, it felt like my fees had been paid,” he says.
As Popy spent time in the national camp for the last one year, she also got to meet her idol – Olympic silver medallist Mirabai Chanu. The youngster has been following a strict diet like Chanu and often seeks her inputs on training as well as the mental aspect. “When I first came to the camp, it took me a few days to realise that I am getting the chance to train along with the likes of Mira didi. Seeing her practise with so much dedication motivates me and I observe her technique closely,” says Popy.
While Popy’s mother Dipti would be watching the Commonwealth Games along with the weightlifter’s grandmother Swarna at their village home, Popy knows how to thank her mother once she returns with a medal from Birmingham.
“Last year, when I joined the Railways, I spent my salary of Rs 23,000 on organising a pooja at the village and arranging a village feast. If I return with a medal, I know my mother will be organising a much bigger feast with whatever savings she has and the desire to see her with my medals keeps me motivated,” says Popy.