Dubai: The saga of Swapna Barman, who rose against all odds to become the first Indian woman to win a heptathlon gold in Asian Games, continues to hold the country in thrall nearly a week after her headline act in Jakarta. Her cellphone has not stopped ringing ever since Barman returned to New Delhi alongwith her fellow athletes on Tuesday, as the enormity of her achievement is yet to sink in with her.
“It’s been too tiring since last evening, so much so that I decided to leave my phone with my roommate Dutee Chand for sometime. My mind is still not working properly, but yes it’s a heady feeling to have proved my critics wrong and achieve something which is a first among women athletes from India,” a sleepy Barman told Gulf News on phone from her hotel room.
The sight of the 21-year-old pint-sized girl, her jaw strapped due to a terrible toothache, flying the Indian tricolour soon after topping the standings with 6026 points after the gruelling two-day event ensured the headlines for her in the Indian media — as did stories of the abject poverty that she and her family fought with in a remote corner of West Bengal to come this far. Her father was a rickshaw puller till a brainstroke around five years back robbed him of the ability to earn, while the family struggled to make ends meet in a one-bedroom house with a tinroof.
A private video of her mother Basana Devi Barman — huddled with family and relatives in their living room to watch her daughter’s golden moment and then rushing to break down before a Hindu deity was somehow leaked and went viral in the social media. Her daughter, meanwhile, lay sprawled on the Jakarta track after the concluding event of 800m with a sense of overwhelming relief and joy.
The poverty of the family seems a touchy issue with Swapna, but she admits it had been a huge driving force for her. “My hunger to succeed was certainly more because of where I am coming from,” she says, going on to add that her priority off the track will be to ensure a proper roof over the heads for the family from financial incentives expected to trickle in.
Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh and other officials felicitate Swapna Barman in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI
As an athlete, she is certainly one of a kind — from being born with six toes in either feet, to her choice of the event — as her small frame is an anathema for a heptathlete who would need a longer reach for both the high and long jumps. Asked how he took the tough decision, Subhas Sarkar, her coach and mentor said: “She started as a high jumper at the school level and was making some progress with time. Her build was an issue, but when I realised that she also has the power, I thought of trying her out with javelin and shot-put along with the jumps. Back in 2013, she surprised everybody with a silver in the nationals and I thought she could be cut out for this event after all.”
Sarkar, a coach with Sports Authority of India (SAI) who took Swapna under his fold in 2011, was with her during the golden pursuit in Indonesia and feels that the biggest challenge for his ward is to stay injury-free to take her performance to the next level. Last year, Rahul Dravid’s Go Sports Foundation, which sponsors her, had referred her to John Gloster — a former physio with the Indian cricket team — to treat a back injury soon after her silver medal performance in the Asian Championship in Bhubaneswar in India.
Asked how she plans to take the next leap forward, Barman said the Jakarta gold would give her the right boost to start preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “It will not be before another couple of weeks when I can go back home to be with my family. I am not yet sure of my training schedule as I had to take painkillers to battle a knee injury which flared up in Jakarta,” she added.