On August 30, 2018, Hima Das, Saritaben Gayakwad, Vismaya Koroth and Poovamma Machettira carved their names in Gold for the fifth consecutive time at the Asian Games, after winning the women’s 4x400m relay. Their win brought India’s gold medal tally to 13.
With a mindblowing timing of 3:28.72, they beat their opponents, Bahrain, who clinched silver with 3:30.61, and Vietnam, who clocked 3:33.23 for the bronze.
While we acknowledge the well-planned strategy of their coach, Galina Bukharina, and the execution of the iconic sprinters, we mustn’t forget the odds each of these iconic athletes braved to make India proud. This is a small attempt to document their incredible journey.
She is 18, and yet Assam’s Dhing Express has a host of medals to her credit, including India’s first Gold in a track event at the IAAF World U20 Championships 2018 when she ran the Women’s 400m in Tampere with a timing of 51.46 seconds.
She was born in the village of Kandhulimari near Dhing town of Nagaon district to rice farmers, Ronjit and Jonali Das. The youngest of five children, she wanted to pursue football, but she did not see any prospects in the beautiful game. A teacher suggested she try athletics. And so, she started participating in short and middle distance races.
Initially coached by Nipon Das, for an inter-district competition, she later shifted base to Guwahati near Saarusajai Sports Complex and enrolled in the state academy.
She competed in the 2018 Commonwealth Games for the 400 meters and the 4×400 meters relay, finishing quite far behind the pack in those games.
Her breakthrough came during the Jakarta Asian Games, where she qualified for the Women’s 400m finals with a timing of 51.00s in Heat 1. On 26 August 2018, she set a new Indian National record with 50.79 sec in the final of the 400m, winning silver for India.
“I don’t run for medals, I run after time,” said Hima Das, after winning the silver in 400m at Asian Games.
From the tribal village of Kharadi Amba in Dang district, Saritaben Gayakwad was born to daily wage earners. She faced a severe financial crisis growing up, where she couldn’t even afford running shoes. So she ran barefoot.
Speaking to SBS Gujarati, she recalls, “When I was a young girl, I used to watch DD sports channel at my uncle’s place. I was inspired by women players like Sania Mirza and others; I wanted to be like them, I wanted to wear India’s T-shirt and make my country proud.”
She first started her journey as a kho-kho player, representing Gujarat at the national level over 17 times. During one such game, a coach advised her to explore her strength in an individual game. And so, she started sprinting four years ago. She was selected from the Talent Hunt Programme at 2012 district-level Khel Mahakumbh, where she stood first in the 400m and 4x400m relay.
She received Rs 25,000 as prize money after winning different games at Khel Mahakumbh, the largest amount she had seen at the time.
She later trained at Center of Excellence Academy, Nadiad, winning several medals in national-level Inter-University athletics tournaments through 2015-2017.
It was around that time that she was spotted by sports officials of the Government of India. She was enrolled at the Indian Camp at Patiala for training and in 2017, selected to represent India at the Asian Championship for 400m race. She won two Gold medals in the selection trials of the Asian Games at Indonesia. From here, there was no going back for the athlete.
When she was selected to be a part of the quartet for the 2018 Asian Games 4x400m relay, 21-year-old Vismaya Velluva Koroth was called the ‘weakest link’.
The daughter of a construction worker from Kannur, Kerala, Koroth had never won anything at an international level. This final was, in fact, her first international debut. All she had was a silver medal at the National Inter-Universities in the relay. It got her a spot in the national camp.
Speaking to ESPN, she said, “I’m not as good as the other runners. Poovamma didi has so much experience, Hima has won so many medals and runs so fast. I’m nothing like that.”
But their coach, Galina Bukharina, saw her potential. Despite her disappointing 53.30 seconds at the Inter-State Athletics Championships (which were supposed to serve as qualifiers for the Asian Games), Galina trusted Koroth.
Thanks to her strategy, India’s best runner Hima ran the opening lap; the most experienced runner MR Poovamma ran the second against two of Bahrain’s runners. By the time Poovamma handed over her baton to Saritaben Gayakwad, India had a sizeable lead, mentions the report.
It extended to 50 yards by the time Vismaya took the baton. Vismaya ran like there was no tomorrow.
“I could see that she was nervous. I just yelled at her in Malayalam. Race Yedithu Wodu (Take the race and run),” said Poovamma.
Clocking one second faster than her personal best at 52.30, she brought the team victory even as she collapsed after crossing the finish line.
On her victory, she said, “I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t let the team down. So I just ran my hardest until I got to the finish line.”
The weakest link, they called her. But she kept the country’s flag flying high with just the same amount of effort, if not more, to win India’s fifth consecutive gold.
An Arjuna Award recipient, she is the most experienced sprinter of the quartet. Poovamma was born in 1990, to MG Raju and Jaji. She completed her primary and higher education in Mangaluru and earned a bachelor’s degree in business management from SDM College of Business Management.
She competed in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, won a silver medal in the 400m race at the 2008 Youth Commonwealth Games and a gold in the 4x400m category at the same event.
She entered the limelight after she stood first at the Open Nationals in September 2011 in Kolkata. She continued her spectacular performance, securing two Golds and a Silver in the 2012 Asian Grand Prix held in Bangkok. She won another gold medal at the 2013 version of the games. She set her personal best at 52.75s after standing first at the Federations Cup in Patiala, in 2013.
She represented the country at the Moscow World Athletics Championships 2013, where she was also a part of the women’s 4x400m relay team. She won the gold medal in women’s 4x400m relay at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, alongside Tintu Luka, Mandeep Kaur and Priyanka Pawar in 3:28:68s.
Speaking to ANI after the recent gold win in the 4x400m relay, she said, “We had to win a gold medal. Silver and bronze medals were not on our cards. We would have valued them, but the gold medal was much more precious, and we have done it.”
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)