Lovlina Borgohain ducked a punch, swayed away from another, and smiled at her Taiwanese opponent. Just another 23-year-old having fun at the Games. That’s what she set out to do.
In her welterweight quarter-final against former world champion Nien-Chin Chen, which the Indian boxer won via a split-decision, her only plan was to have no plan. “This time, I went in with a free mind, without any strategy,” she said. It worked.
The girl who followed her elder twin sisters, Licha and Lima, to a kickboxing club in Guwahati, where she was spotted by coaches who steered her towards boxing, is now an Olympic medallist.
Lovlina shuffle-stepped and punched her way into the welterweight semi-finals and assured India of its second medal in the Tokyo Olympics. It is India’s first boxing medal since Mary Kom’s bronze at the London Olympics and the third in history.
India continued its forward momentum in badminton and hockey as well. Rio Olympics silver medallist P V Sindhu swept aside home favourite Akane Yamaguchi in a 21-13, 22-20 to set up a mouth-watering semi-final with Taiwan’s Tai Tzu Ying, considered the queen of deception, on Saturday.
The men’s hockey team, meanwhile, finished their group stage commitments with a 5-3 win over Japan to finish second in their group, a creditable finish after slumping to a 7-1 defeat to top-placed Australia earlier in the week.
The women’s hockey team, too, kept their hopes of qualifying for the quarter-final alive with a 1-0 win over World Cup runners-up Ireland. They will have to beat South Africa on Saturday to have any hope of progressing to the quarter-finals.
But the highlight of the day for India was Lovlina’s stunning win over Chen. The boxer from Baramukhia in Assam was the lesser favourite of the two heading into the bout; partly because of the Taiwanese boxer’s quality and partly because of her own history of lacking confidence on big stages.
But on Friday, she came bouncing out of the tunnel, shadow-boxed her way into the ring, and when Chen, looking to become her country’s first boxing medallist at the Olympics, rushed out the moment the bell sounded, Lovlina didn’t hold back as well. “I just wanted to hit her,” she said.
She was street-smart as well. Tall for her weight category, the 5’10” Indian kept her distance from her opponent, not getting into brawls that Chen prefers. She made use of her range to rip through punches with her spiteful right hand and snuck in body shots in a cagey opening round.
In the second period, she moved smoothly around the ring to avoid being a stationary target while connecting her fists to Chen’s skull with remarkable force and precision. It was an uncharacteristically nerveless and confident performance and by the end of the second round, it was clear that Lovlina was on course for an upset win.
When the final bell sounded after the third round, where Lovlina had fun more than she fought, she punched the air and embraced her coaches. “I knew mid-way through the bout that I had won so I was enjoying myself,” she said. “I have been working hard for eight years, making a lot of sacrifices. This was one day to make all of it count.”
This time last year, however, an Olympic podium seemed far away. When the pandemic hit and the country went into a lockdown last year, Lovlina went home to be by the bedside of her ailing mother, who was in hospital with a kidney problem. When she returned to the national camp in Patiala, she tested positive for Covid.
It didn’t affect her a lot and she resumed training without any fuss. But her mother’s condition continued to trouble her and it was only when the family found a donor that Lovlina was able to focus on training without any psychological burden.
She chose not to get drawn into the hype or make a sappy thanksgiving speech after merely securing a medal. “I have a gold medal to win, so this can wait,” she said.
A gold medal is in sight now – just two more wins – but before that, the Indian boxer will have to overcome a mighty tough opponent in the semi-final. Lovlina will face the reigning world champion from Turkey, Busenaz Surmeneli, in the last-four bout on August 4.
“The fact that I am assured of a medal takes some pressure off,” she said. “So I will just try to be fluid once more and see where that takes me.”
It could take her where no Indian has reached so far.
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