Jakarta: Having spent five days as a child clinging to a tree in the wake of a tsunami, Indian cyclist Deborah Herold has some perspective on the concept of fear of failure in the sporting arena.
Herold, now 23, will make her Asian Games debut at the Jakarta International Velodrome next week but it is the tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia 14 years ago which remains the defining experience of her life.
A massive quake in the Indian Ocean triggered a tsunami that killed some 228,000 people, the majority in the Indonesian province of Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
Herold grew up in Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are located close to Sumatra far to the east of the Indian mainland, and she vividly remembers the Sunday morning when her mother came rushing into the room where she and her sister slept.
“I was probably nine then. She screamed ‘Get up and run fast’, and so we did,” Herold said in an interview.
“We ran out and reached a field. Our village was pretty close to the sea and the sea was roaring. I was holding mom’s hand but suddenly I found myself engulfed by water. Even mom didn’t realise when we split.” Panic set in but Herold had the presence of mind to climb a tree, while the water continued to rise beneath her.
“I spent five days perched on the tree. Maybe longer, but the trauma had dulled my senses,” she recalled.
“I just cried and cried. I had mosquito bites all over my body and I grew so weak.” Finally a search party arrived to start clearing the corpses of the many dead and Herold had to muster up all her strength to scream for help.
“They got me down,” she said. “I had given up hopes of seeing my family again. My parents feared I had been swept away. When we finally reunited, you can imagine how much I cried.”
Life was soon back on track, literally so for Herold who dabbled with athletics before discovering the joy of cycling after a ride on her cousin’s bike. “Then came a cycling competition and I asked dad if I could use his cycle,” she said with a smile. “He let me use it, but I had to promise to him that I’d win, which I did.” She did well enough to be noticed by the Sports Authority of India officials who took her into the SAI centre in Port Blair, the capital of the Andamans.
“There I learnt what a velodrome is, even though it was outdoors,” said Herold, who will compete in team sprint and keirin in Jakarta.
“It was there that I first rode a bike with gears.”
Since being selected for a national camp, she has moved to New Delhi, won three medals in Track Asia Cup and risen to number four in the individual rankings in 500 metres time trial.
Herold, who has drawn plenty of attention for wearing her hair short in a nation where women have traditionally kept it long, has great admiration for trailblazing female athletes like boxer MC Mary Kom and gymnast Dipa Karmakar.
“Like them, I too want to do well, and possibly win an Olympic medal. I want to do well for India,” she said.