Every morning, at the National Games Village nestled in the foothills of the Langol Hills in Manipur’s Imphal West district, home to Olympic medallist boxer M.C. Mary Kom, a group of young boxers perfect their punches long before other residents are awake.

In the evening, when office-goers return home, the same group is out on the streets putting its lungs to the test—sprinting, skipping, shadow-boxing, jumping—till they are drenched in sweat. They are from the Mary Kom Regional Boxing Foundation, and it is not difficult to understand why the 2012 Olympic bronze medallist and five-time world champion can inspire her students to work till they drop.

Many young people in Imphal now dream of boxing at the Olympics. And they aren’t being ridiculed. Families are joining the rush to enrol their children at the academy. “Two or three years ago, nobody thought boxing was worth taking up in Manipur," says Mary, holding her newborn boy in her arms even as her almost six-year-old twins hover around her. And the interest is not just restricted to Imphal; young boxers find their way to the academy from all over Manipur.

Monika Devi, 15, from Thoubal district is one of the many who believes she can be the next Mary Kom. She has been boxing since she was 13. Her parents are farmers, and she is the second of four children. Monika Devi turns teary-eyed as she tells us how her parents, who struggled to afford even basic necessities, saved money to buy her boxing gear, and provided her with a special diet to match her physical exertions. After winning a silver at a sub-junior National Championship in Kolkata in 2012, she joined Mary’s academy in March. Last month, she won gold in Imphal at the state-level boxing tournament.

The academy takes “promising" students like Monika Devi after screening. Yet there’s always a problem of far too many applicants. In 2010, for instance, the academy had a slot for 20 boxers, but 350 boys and girls came for the trial. “Sometimes it’s hard to disappoint so many young dreams," says K. Onler Kom, Mary’s husband, who oversees the functioning of the academy. Some, like Ningneihat Kom, 19, one of the academy’s first students and a relative of Mary’s, have been around for a while and have benefited from the academy. Ningneihat has won three bronze medals at the junior level and gold in the senior level at a national-level boxing tournament.

Sixty students between the ages of 11 and 21, some of them residential, now train at her academy. They have three years to prove themselves in different tournaments across the country and if they do not perform, they are asked to go.

Training sessions go on for hours, morning and evening. During the day, students attend schools in the neighbourhood. There is an emphasis on all-round development. Physical training classes are followed up by theory classes and even meditation and prayer sessions which, according to Mary, are critical for discipline.

The academy, Mary says, was a “faith project" that she and Onler started in 2007 with 12 boxers who were housed in the couple’s home, and shared their food.

It was only in 2010, after her bronze medal at the Asian Games, that the state government allocated 2 acres for the academy. Following her bronze medal at the Olympics in 2012, the size of the plot was increased, to 3.36 acres.

Though the project is largely self-funded, agencies such as the Sports Authority of India are supplying the gym equipment. Construction has started—bricks, iron for beams, pillars and heaps of sand lie around.

For the moment, the 30 residential trainees stay in temporary rented accommodation—a mud house with a tin roof. The long verandah of the mud house has old gym equipment lying in rows. “Initially, it was difficult even to provide a full supply of nutrition but now, by the grace of God, we are able to give them a nutritious meal," says Onler. Far too often, they exceed their monthly budget of 80,000.

Each trainee has paid 300 as registration fee. But many can’t even afford school fees, let alone charges for the hostel, and Mary subsidizes that as well.

But then Mary knows that it’s what she has always wanted to do. “I never forget my own journey and my story. This is what I want to do for the people," she says.

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