India’s “Magnificent Mary,” a six-time world champion and Olympic bronze medalist, showed dedication, in and outside of the ring. 

People may have counted her down, but she was never counted out. Bruised, beaten, and even bloodied, boxer Mary Kom has always gotten up from the mat, ready for another round, despite a life of discouragement and doubt.

As a young girl in Manipur, India, Kom was a member of a very poor tenant farming family who had only enough to survive. Kom’s parents wanted better for her, and they urged her to get an education. She studied hard, walking miles to school in broken shoes her mother repaired by melting the soles with hot tongs. With no electricity, Kom did her homework by the wavering light of a single oil lamp. 

At night, Kom laid awake wondering how to get that better future. While she didn’t excel at academics, she did inherit a bit of her father’s athleticism. Kom was good at track and field; maybe she could parlay that talent into a scholarship?

Coincidentally, native son and boxer Dingko Singh returned home to Manipur having won a gold medal at the Bangkok Asian Games. His feat inspired Kom to don the gloves. She was a natural.

At age 15, Kom begged her parents to allow her to travel to the capital to enroll at a sports academy. She knew better than to mention that she wanted to study boxing—her parents worried about any sport that might harm her face and therefore hurt her chances for marriage. 

After months of negotiation, Kom was allowed to go away to school. Kom worked hard, training with a coach who admired her willpower. Since she was small and light, other students could knock Kom down, but they couldn’t keep her there and she took to the ring with the ferocity of a tiny tiger. Kom practiced for hours, putting all of her power behind her punches. 

Her face told the tale. With so many bruises, Kom stayed away from her home; she didn’t want her parents to know that she was boxing. But it wasn’t a secret she could keep for long.

After she won the state boxing championship in 2000, a newspaper article published a photo of Kom’s battered face. Her father overheard a villager say, “Do you believe the boxing championship was won by a local girl?” and stopped in his tracks. He discovered that not just any local girl won the championship—it was his local girl.

Kom faced an emotional firestorm on her next trip home, where her parents begged her to give up boxing. 

“What if you’re injured? We don’t have the money to pay for a doctor!” her father yelled. Kom countered by telling him about all the protective gear she wore. Her father retorted, “Who will marry you with a battered and bruised face? You’ll never have children!”

Large families were treasured in India and although Kom understood this cultural norm, she was determined to keep boxing. Children would have to wait.

Kom’s parents reluctantly supported their daughter, and she traveled the country perfecting her boxing skills. However, Kom’s ability to take care of herself outside of the ring needed improvement. 

Kom once fell asleep on a train to a tournament, and awoke to find that all her belongings had been stolen. On the next train ride, Kom chained her purse to her wrist and confidently fell asleep believing the heavy iron links would protect her. Instead, a thief came equipped with bolt cutters and stole her belongings yet again—including her passport. Her parents sold a cow to pay for her travel and equipment, and her new passport arrived just in time for Kom to compete. When Kom earned her first cash prize from a win, she helped her parents repay their loans

On her travels, Kom met soccer player K. Onler Kom, and the two became close friends. Kom called Onler to commiserate about every defeat and to celebrate every triumph—there were many of the latter. 

The press dubbed Kom “Magnificent Mary” and her popularity resulted in many offers of marriage. Kom thought she had plenty of time to start a family, though her parents remained a source of unrelenting pressure—Kom should give up boxing and concentrate on having children.

Kom turned to Onler for advice and, as they talked late into the night, they discovered that perhaps Kom was ready to get married—to Onler, her devoted friend. They married in 2005 and, two years later, welcomed twin sons Rechungvar and Khupneivar.

Onler took over the childcare duties while Kom got back to training. Her family was horrified—doubly so because Kom’s twins had been born by C-section, which increased the risk of abdominal injury—but Kom still had a burning desire to compete.

Once she began competing again, Kom won more silver than gold medals, including at the Asian Women’s Boxing Championship held in India.

Although Kom won her fourth successive gold medal at the AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship in China in 2008 and took gold at the Asian Indoor Games in Vietnam in 2009,  her confidence began to fail. Rumors about her being washed up only increased when Kom lost to 19-year-old rookie Pinki Jangra in the quarterfinals of the Senior Women National Boxing Championship in 2009. 

Kom’s depression worsened after her father suggested that she should have quit while she was still at the top of her career rather than end in disgrace. Yet somehow, that stinging criticism lit a fire in her belly. Kom doubled down on her commitment to be the very best boxer she could be and set her eyes on the biggest prize of all: the 2012 Olympic Games.

Kom was bursting with pride as she entered the stadium, representing her country before the world. Before earning the gold, Kom had to win three bouts and met her match in the taller, stronger British champion Nicola Adams. Kom went down in defeat, finishing third overall and winning the bronze medal.

Yet when Kom returned home, she was met by rapturous crowds who thanked her for bringing back an Olympic medal to Manipur. 

She finally saw her win through a different lens. Even if she didn’t win gold, she was an Olympic champion and cherished that title forever after.

Kom never forgot her roots, and in 2006 opened an academy to train future boxing champions. She also started India’s first female-only fight club to teach girls how to defend themselves against sexual violence.

She reminds all her students: “I am a ‘nobody’ who became a sports icon only because of my hard work. My life is a message: nothing is impossible.”

In 2014, Kom became the first female Indian boxer to earn gold in South Korea’s Asian Games. Four years later, she was the first Indian woman boxer to take the gold medal at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia.

Mary Kom fought her way out of poverty and, against all odds, clawed her way to Olympic glory, becoming one of the greatest athletes of all time. Her example proves that nothing can keep a true champion on the mat. Today, now the mother of three boys, she continues to fight for her dreams. Kom is vying for her seventh World Championships title with her eye on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In September 2019, she was named the most admired woman in India.