CWG: On a day of near-misses, a silver lining as judoka Shushila, a farmer’s daughter, finishes on podium

For a moment, the gold medal seemed within reach for Shushila Devi Likmabam. One of India’s finest judokas, Shushila went toe-to-toe with South Africa’s Michaela Whitebooi in the 48kg final but fell agonisingly short, losing narrowly to settle for a silver, her second CWG medal, having won a silver at the Glasgow Games in 2014 as well.

Shushila’s excellent form going into the event was obvious during her quarter-final and semi-final bouts. The Manipuri judoka was a picture of concentration during her match against African champion Priscilla Morand at the last-four stage. Her strategy was to stand almost sideways to her opponent while grabbing the collar of her judogi and wait for the opportune moment. A few seconds later the moment would arrive, with Shushila grabbing her opponent’s far arm, twisting into her body and performing the perfect hip toss.

It was the signature move of a successful campaign that saw her reach the final with both her previous contests ending in less than three minutes. But getting to this point needed almost a decade-long waiting and worrying.

Tough times

When Shushila won the silver medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, she thought that her life and career were set on an upward trajectory. But what followed was her missing out on qualification for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Judo as a sport requires participation in at least 20-30 events for qualifications and money was always an issue for Shushila.

Born in a family where her parents used to farm vegetables and sell whatever was left as excess, Shushila would take loans and travel around the world trying to excel at her sport. The car she had bought in 2016 had to be sold off as well because of the precarious financial situation. Her elder brother Shilakshi explained the problems to The Indian Express last year.

“When we were kids, we’d go on a bicycle all over Imphal. Us time bachche the, water bottle ke alava kuchh nahi chahiye tha, aur kit hum pehen ke jaate the (we were kids then, needing nothing else but water bottles, and were wearing our kits),” Shilakshi said, himself a national judo champion. “The car was handy because as an international player, you have to travel with your kit, you’ve got your fitness equipment, your food, your protein shakes and all other things.”

“The farm at home is just farm in name,” he describes. “It’s a tiny place, we used to manage to grow enough vegetables for us, maybe sell a few of the excess stuff. But it was not enough. Papa gaon ke sarpanch the, nahi to kuchh nahi ho pata (Father was the village headman, otherwise nothing would have been possible).”

Shushila then set her sights on the 2018 Asian Games and was hoping that a medal there would finally bring better fortunes. But her hamstring tore during the trials and she had to give up on that dream as well.

For a judoka from India, qualifying for the Olympics is the ultimate prize and a few months after that setback, Shushila spoke to coach Jiwan Sharma about her financial situation. Sharma then set up tickets for her, talked to her sponsors and convinced them that she was an athlete worth backing. Suddenly, she was back on track – this time with the goal of reaching the Tokyo Olympics.

Just as she started to build some steam, the pandemic hit. Once again, Shushila was forced to stop her preparations and wait patiently in Imphal for news on the Olympics. All competitions and qualification events were either postponed or team members got Covid-positive during the Asia-Oceania trials.

But Shushila managed to qualify for the Tokyo Games, becoming the only Indian to be a part of the Judo event. She was the highest-ranked Asian judoka outside the Top 18 on the Olympics Games Quota list and thus automatically qualified for the event. At Tokyo, she finished 17th but had already won a battle just by reaching there.

Now at these Commonwealth Games, the 27-year-old earned yet another medal eight years after her first triumph in the competition. Her sport now receives more recognition in India than ever before. She now trains out of the JSW-backed Inspire Institute of Sport in Vijaynagar.

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