Struggling with a lack of customised shoes for her 12 toes and braving an excruciating toothache, 21-year-old Swapna Barman created history by becoming the first Indian to clinch a gold medal in the Heptathlon category at the Asian Games 2018.
The gruelling schedule of seven events, spread out over three days, took a toll on her body. That, coupled with her perpetual concern of ill-fitting shoes pinching the six toes on each of her feet and a tooth infection after a root canal, were the many battles she fought bravely to notch a remarkable 6,026 points.
The athlete, who had to attach a Kinesio tape around her swollen right jaw, to make the pain bearable, also won shot put, javelin and high jump. She also became the fifth woman athlete to score 6,000 points in the sport.
The journey from Jalpaiguri to Jakarta hasn’t been easy for the Queen of Heptathlon.
Swapna Barman was born to a rickshaw puller and a tea-estate worker and hails from the humble town of Jalpaiguri in West Bengal.
Tragedy struck the family after her father suffered a stroke, which left him completely bedridden. Arranging even one square meal a day for a family of six became a daily challenge. And so, young Swapna decided to shoulder the responsibility of the family. And she knew the only way to do it was through her passion – sports.
Even the initial days for the athlete were riddled with challenges because she couldn’t afford the right running shoes for her toes. The regular ones she wore made it difficult to run. But she didn’t let the pain deter her from her goal.
Her impressive performance in sports and her undying spirit so impressed the athletic community in her state, that her present coach, Subhash Sarkar, decided to train her. It was only a matter of time until she clinched three gold medals in the Asian School Games in Malaysia.
In 2013, she broke Kavya Muthanna’s 2004 national record. In the same year, at the 29th National Junior Athletics Championships in Sri Kanteerava Stadium, Bengaluru, she swept the Heptathlon with a high jump of 1.71m, breaking the previous record of 1.70m held by Kavya.
According to an Indian Express report, she attributed her win to her coach, saying, “Credit for this new record goes to my coach Subhash Sarkar. I am very happy that I have won the gold. My purpose is to win at the biggest stage of them all. That is my only motivation. To make my father P Barman proud.”
The 2014 Asian Games in Incheon followed. She finished fifth in Heptathlon. The following year, a bad back and ankle injuries kept her missing from action for two consecutive years.
She made a fiery comeback when she won a gold medal at the Asian Athletics Championships 2017 with 5,942 points.
At the 2018 Asian Games, while her strongest events included the high jump (1,003 points), javelin throw (872 points), shot put (707 points) and long jump (865 points), her difficult events were the 100m (981 points, 5th position) and 200m in which she finished seventh with 790 points.
By the last event of the seven, the 800m run, Barman was leading China’s Qingling Wang by 64 points. Even though she finished fourth in the run, she had amassed enough points to top the category.
“I’ve struggled to get shoes for my six toes all my life. It’s bad with shoes, it’s worse with spikes,” she shared. Not only competitions but even training also left her in unbearable pain. Despite meeting doctors and experts, and being in rehab, nothing worked.
“I thought on the first day that I wouldn’t be able to compete at all. But then I had to — what would happen to all the hard work I had put in,” she said.
According to a report in The Times of India, when the heptathlete was asked if she would like companies to manufacture customised shoes to alleviate her pain, she humbly said, “Definitely, it will make life easy.”
Let’s hope the athlete’s plea doesn’t fall on deaf ears. After all, she overcame every obstacle to make India proud at the Asian Games. The least we can do is give her a pair of shoes so she can continue to chase her dreams.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)