Who Is Karnam Malleswari? India's First Female Olympic Medalist

On September 19, 2000, legendary weightlifter Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics. By clinching the bronze medal in the 69kg weightlifting category, she shattered glass ceilings and stereotypes.

Ria Das
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Karnam Malleswari .

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On September 19, 2000, legendary weightlifter Karnam Malleswari became the first Indian woman to win a medal at the Olympics. Two decades later, in 2020, the emerging talent Saikhom Mirabai Chanu shattered Malleswari's longstanding Olympic record. Chanu clinched the silver medal in the women's 49 kg category at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, gracefully following the path paved by Malleswari. 


Going back to 2000, it was yet another Olympic campaign for the country, which saw unlucky attempts in 1992, 1988, and 1984. Who knew the year 2000 would bring us so much joy? This was a different Olympic for India, a special moment that had not happened in the history of the Asian nation’s 100 years of Olympic participation. That day, Malleswari lifted the 130 kg weight in clean and jerk. With this feat, she also ended a drought in India’s sporting culture, becoming the country's 'Iron Lady'.

By clinching the bronze medal in the 69kg weightlifting category, she not only secured a podium finish but also shattered glass ceilings and stereotypes. In a country where sports, especially weightlifting , were often seen as a male-dominated domain, Malleswari emerged as a symbol of empowerment and possibility.

In the Sydney Olympics 2000, she won bronze in 69kg category, she not only became the first Indian women to ever win an Olympic medal (individual or in a team) in weightlifting, but also uplifted the status quo of Indian women in the global extravaganza.

Malleswari won the bronze medal in the 54 kg division after lifting a total of 177.5 kg at the 1993 championships in Melbourne, Australia. Since then, the medal haul has come from three consecutive world championships.

Many of her other golds came from the Istanbul World Championship (1994, earning the first gold medal for India) and the Asian Championships (54-kg category) in Pusan, Korea (1995). In the 1995 World Weightlifting Championship in Guangzhou, (China, Malleswari set a new world record by winning three gold medals in the 54-kg category. She was awarded the 'Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award' in 1994–95.


Former Olympic medalist weightlifter Malleswari now runs her foundation in Haryana. With a keen focus on nurturing young talent, her academy serves as a crucible where champions are forged and dreams take flight. Through a holistic approach encompassing training, education, and mentorship, Malleswari aims to cultivate the next generation of Olympic medalists.

Malleshwari is known as the “iron lady of Andhra Pradesh.”

A Legacy Carved In Iron

Malleswari's tryst with weightlifting began at the tender age of 12, a time when dreams were as boundless as the horizon. Encouraged by the sight of girls training at a local gym near her home, she embarked on a path that would redefine the contours of Indian sports history. What started as a dalliance soon blossomed into a lifelong passion, fueled by an unquenchable thirst for success.

Born in a small village of Andhra Pradesh called Srikakulamn, Malleswari did not have much luxury to practice weightlifting in her village. So, she would walk to a nearby gymnasium from her home at the tender age of 12. Her younger sister, Krishna Kumari, is also a national-level weightlifter. Her father, Manohar, was a constable in the Railway Protection Force. He was also a volleyball player and football player.

Her mother, Shyamla, was the reason Malleswari came into the sport, as she pushed four of their five daughters to take up weightlifting after watching her uncle’s son practice. Soon, Malleswari dropped out of school as she was always practising weightlifting. With no schooling, she steadily progressed in the gym.


Eventually, she started participating in various state and national level competitions, and Shyamla would accompany her with all the necessary household needs to serve her daughter a hot and nutritional meal.

The pivotal moment in Karnam Malleswari's career came when she caught the eye of Olympic champion Leonid Taranenko during a visit to a national camp. Recognizing her innate talent, Taranenko's endorsement paved the way for Karnam Malleswari's entry into the Bangalore Sports Institute. Interestingly, the efforts paid off as Malleswari received her first professional coach in the face of Neelam Shetty Appanna, and it was her turn to perform wonderfully in the national championships.

Later on, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) spotted her rare talent, and in 1990, she was included in the national camp. It was not foreseen, but four years later she won the World Championship in the 54kg class.

The Rise Of The Star

She kicked off her glorious career in 1991 when a 16-year-old Malleswari won silver at the 1991 Senior Nationals held in Ambala. The result was a big boost, and in 1993, she clinched bronze in the 54 kg category at the World Championships in Melbourne. The following year, she became a world champion, clinching gold at the 1994 World Championships in Istanbul. In the process, she also became the first Indian woman to win a gold medal on stage. Later, that year, she also claimed the silver medal at the 1994 Asian Games in Hiroshima.

Next year, in 1995, she again won gold in the 54 kg at the 1995 World Championships in Guangzhou. In 1996, she had to settle for a bronze.

By the time she prepared for Olympics, she had won 29 International medals, of which 11 were gold.

By the time she prepared for the Olympics, she had won 29 international medals, of which 11 were gold.

Malleshwari was trained by coach Leonid Taranenko, a renowned weightlifter, who holds several world records. She married a weightlifter named Rajesh Tyagi.

Olympics And Glory

When Malleswari walked towards the stage, she was just 25 years old. She had steadily made her way into the finals and had performed resiliently, lifting 105 kg, 107.5 kg and 110 kg in the snatch event and 125 kg and 130 kg in the Clean & Jerk event. And then the finishing score read clearly: Malleswari lifted the metal, weighing 137.5 kg to win India’s first individual gold, both among women and men alike.

Retirement Suits Her

She gave birth to a son in 2001. She decided not to participate in the 2002 Commonwealth Games due to the death of her father. Later, she had an unsuccessful 2004 Athen Olympics. She soon announced her retirement and was forever remembered as the Iron Lady of India.

 Honorary Awards

  • Arjuna Award (1994-95)
  • Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award (1995–96)
  • Padma Shri (1999)




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