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A golden story from Bengal's swamps – Weightlifter Achinta Sheuli's journey to glory

From the remotest lanes of Deulpur to Birmingham’s NEC Hall 1, Achinta Sheuli’s story is nothing short of a fairy tale. However, there was no fairy godmother or an Aladdin’s lamp to provide a helping hand to the young weightlifter. Only sheer hard work and perseverance have made Sheuli such a competent lifter at the tender age of 20.

Achinta Sheuli became India’s third gold medallist at the 2022 Commonwealth Games with a combined lift of 313kgs, a new Commonwealth Games record.

This is India’s third gold medal of the 2022 CWG after Mirabai Chanu and Jeremy Lalrinnunga.

Roughly a week before the Commonwealth Games 2022 commenced in Birmingham, The Bridge got a chance to speak to some of the family members and close ones of the weightlifter.

While Achinta is at Birmingham eyeing a historic gold, a proud Sheuli household in West Bengal had loads to speak about the youngster.

Two brothers, one sport

Interestingly, it is elder brother Alok who got into weightlifting first. “I got into this sport in 2010 after my board exams. It was very tough as the kind of food, multivitamins, and equipment that is required in weightlifting could not be provided by my family,” Alok said while sitting in front of their old, ramshackle house.

After a couple of years, he got the little Achinta interested in weightlifting. “We both played our first Nationals in 2013 which was held in Guwahati. Unfortunately, two months before the tournament, our father passed away and it forced me to leave graduation midway to manage the finances for the family.”

That year, while Alok, currently working with the Fire Brigade on a contractual basis, finished 6th, Achinta had finished a creditable 4th, in the NAtionals. This kickstarted his weightlifting career.

Tackling destitution- From a mother’s perspective

Purnima Sheuli waited patiently for her turn to speak about her son, the CWG 2022 debutant, with a joyful look on her face that rarely faded. However, as soon as the mother of two started speaking about the difficulties and hurdles they have had to overcome, Purnima soon turned teary-eyed and her voice began to shake.

“We were in a lot of pain after my husband’s demise. I had to take up embroidery work from people to support my sons. Even they used to help me as much as they could during those times,” Achinta and Alok’s mother said.

Purnima Sheuli (to the right)

Once Achinta got a real shot at taking part in a competitive level, he approached his mother to tell her the good news. Purnima remembers the conversation as an emotional one. Her main concern was how all of it would affect his studies.

“When he (Achinta) used to go to school, food was very scarce. If one day he had rice on his plate, then he would not have any vegetables to go with it. Some days it would be eggs, or fish, while meat dishes were something my son would cry for, but we could not afford it.”

“I am very happy that my younger son is going to compete at such a high level. I had never imagined that he would reach such heights, but I am very proud of him,” she added.

Qualifying for Birmingham

Achinta has an impressive collection of medals at such a young age. After clinching gold in 2018 at the Khelo India Youth Games, Sheuli went on to finish first in the Commonwealth Weightlifting Championships not once but twice. The first one came in 2019 in Apia while the second came in the 2021 edition held in Tashkent.

“After doing well at the district level, I used to scold and push him to do better and make a future out of this sport. No one had our backs and our family did not come from affluent means to give us a helping hand,” Alok said.

Tough circumstances even made Alok take odd jobs like working in the fields to get food for one week.

After Achinta impressed everyone on the national circuit, he joined the Indian camp at Patiala.

Before the youngster clinched silver in 2021’s Junior World Weightlifting Championships, Achinta had got a chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. But, luck wasn’t on his side this time.

“He missed the qualification by a very small margin. Boys his age who were ranked lower than him qualified as the competition in Asia was pretty fierce due to the presence of countries like China and Indonesia. When he qualified for the Commonwealth Games, I was very happy and it was a proud moment as no one from our club had ever achieved this feat,” Alok added.

Achinta the person

Who better than a mother to ask about her son and what shenanigans he was up to during his childhood? While Purnima could have let bias cloud her answers, she did not hold back as she reminisced the times when a mischievous Achinta would go about his day.

“He would always show laziness with his studies and whine about sitting down to prepare for his exams. Despite this, he would always do very well in school. Achinta was certainly a handful when he was younger, but with age, his temperament has also calmed down a lot,” she said.

First Coach and his high hopes

About 500 meters away from their humble abode is the local gym which was the breeding ground for a future champion. Nestled away in a secluded and swampy region, with monitor lizards visiting now and then, the Deulpur Coaching Centre is run by Ashtam Das, the local Dronacharya of aspiring lifters.

Das, who doesn’t take any sort of fee from his student, has been involved with the sport for more than three decades. Starting as an athlete himself, he found himself in Deulpur where he slowly converted what was initially a poultry house into a makeshift gym for people wanting to pursue the sport.

Coach Ashtam Das (to the left)

Ashtam trained Achinta during his early days and had nothing but praise for him. “Judging from his results and performances, we knew from beforehand that he has the talent to make it to the Olympics. He will qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics,” Das said.

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