In the last moments before they enter the ring, combat sports fighters do what it takes to psych themselves up. Coaches slap their backs and tell them they are the best. Lovlina Borgohain needed to get a boost. Pacing in front of her, chomping at the bit for the bell to ring, almost savouring the medal she expects to come, was the 2018 world champion, Chinese Taipei's Chen Nien-Chin. Borgohain had lost all previous bouts against her - the first time comprehensively, on home soil in Delhi.
The last words in Borgohain's head before she takes her first steps to the centre of the canvas, however, aren't what her ringside coaches tell her. They are her own.
"Tum sherni nahi ho, tum sher ho. (You aren't a lioness, you are a lion)," she tells herself.
It's something taught to her by her long-standing coach Sandhya Gurung - it's what she would whisper in Borgohain's ears, along with a slap on her back, before the bout began. Gurung isn't in Tokyo but, in chats with and messages to Borgohain, she's constantly reminded her of this mantra. She tells her to believe it and say it to herself. And so Borgohain has done this before each bout in Tokyo.
For a long time, though, Borgohain wasn't a lion or a lioness. Back when she was a cub, she was barely a decent boxer. When she was picked up for the youth national camp in 2012, after winning the sub-junior nationals, she was seen as a prospect not because she was the most skillful boxer around but because she looked like she should be.
Standing 5'10", Borgohain is tall for her weight division and even back then she was lanky and athletically built - the perfect template of a distance fighter. Both her elder sisters were combat sportspersons too - earning jobs with their Muay Thai skills in the security forces - so when SAI coach Padam Boro introduced her to boxing, she took to it. Her physical attributes were more than enough and although she didn't have much technical ability, she was good enough to win events.
Eventually she went to Bhopal, where Gurung was a coach. She thought Borgohain had her work cut out. "She had everything but she was scared. It was okay against weaker opponents. She'd still win against them. But the moment you put her in the ring with a real threat - in an actual pressure situation, she would panic," says Gurung. Where she needed to fight, she was more likely to freeze. "She was this very shy girl."
As Gurung predicted, Borgohain continued to have decent success at the national and international levels -- she would win four international medals, including a silver, in the Nations Cup at Serbia - over the next three years but was never really a threat in the tournaments that mattered. Inside the quiet girl, though, was a core of steel resolve. Perhaps it was just the natural process of maturing or even the realization of a goal, but eventually it emerged.
Gurung says she first noticed something was different in 2016 when, after the Olympics, the two met again at the national camp. "I said, 'You have to make something of yourself. You have to try for the Olympics'," she says. The next day the coach would get a shock. "She had this beautiful waist length hair. And she had chopped it all off to a short crop. She said the hair got in the way when she boxed so that was it," she recalls. Borgohain would go a step further and shave her hair off entirely in 2018 but has let it recover to the original short-crop length once again.
It was around then that Gurung started sending Borgohain into the ring with the exhortation that she wasn't just a sherni but a sher. It wasn't that she was diminishing the courage of a woman, but exhorting her in a manner she knew would inspire her.
The switch didn't happen instantly. It's hard to not flinch when a punch is delivered at you from three feet away. Borgohain flinched the first time she boxed Chen. She'd already made the semifinals of the 2018 World Championships in New Delhi, beating lesser boxers. But Chen, with her heavy hands and constant pressure, is different. While the Indian would haplessly try to maintain distance, the shorter Taipei fighter simply stepped in, punched on the inside and bullied Borgohain around in the clinch.
She wasn't ready then. "It's a slow process. She was still afraid of the Chen's power. But every day we were working on getting her better. We worked on building her jab. That is the main punch for her. If it is weak, an opponent can always get in. But if it is hard and accurate, it will deter anyone," says Gurung.
Gurung says she knew Borgohain would be a threat at the Olympics - an event she qualified for in February 2020. But even as she was preparing for the Games, Borgohain was faced with setbacks, Just before the Asian Olympic qualifiers, she had learned that her mother was seriously unwell following the failure of both her kidneys. When the country went into lockdown in March, she went home to be by her mother's side. When she returned she'd test positive for the virus herself.
The virus did not take a serious toll on her; she resumed training with no loss of endurance or strength but her mother's illness continued to weigh on her. "She shouldered a lot of the family's responsibility back then, even while she was preparing for the Olympics," says Gurung. She was involved in searching for donors and even arranged the hospital in Kolkata where the transplant took place. When the transplant was finally conducted successfully earlier this year, it was "as if a big weight had lifted off her," says Gurung.
It had an effect on her training too. "We went to a camp in Italy and she was so focused. She was getting really sharp. She was moving really well. Her jab was like a rod. I think she was very well prepared," she says.
Borgohain had found the solution to her fear. The answer wasn't to suddenly forget fear. It was to learn to deal with it. She showed just that against Chen. When the bell sounded for their quarterfinal bout and Chen rushed out, Borgohain met her with her fist stuck out firmly. Throughout the fight, she controlled the distance, smart enough not to avoid the telephone booth brawls the Taipei boxer thrives in. If Chen was charging forward, Lovlina didn't have to stand and trade - a fight she'd never win.
It was to move, so she didn't make a stationary target and use Chen's forward momentum against her. It was a near-nerveless performance. By the end of the second round, Borgohain was leading on a majority of cards by a near insurmountable two points and level on the other two. In the third round, Borgohain even looked like she was enjoying herself, stepping in with a jab followed by a right cross. She stayed calm and collected through it all.
She allowed herself a fist pump in the air as she walked back to her corner following the final bell. The result was a near unanimous one. The judges' scores were read out and Borgohain was declared a 4-1 winner. And then finally Borgohain let it out. She flexed her arms and unleashed a triumphant roar. Like a lion.