Dream girl

Heptathlete Swapna Barman's journey from a meal a day to the Asian Games podium

102-Swapna-Barman Swapna Barman

Fame hit them like a hammer. From the moment their daughter, Swapna Barman, won the heptathlon gold at the Asian Games in Jakarta in August, Basana and Panchanan Barman have been busier than ever. Every day, with folded hands and smiles, they welcome a steady stream of guests to their modest home in Patkata village, about 30km from Jalpaiguri town in West Bengal. The visitors include politicians, ministers (Central and state), local government heads and bureaucrats.

She was talented, but her physical shape was unimpressive. I saw her doing the high jump, but she was too short. - Subhash Sarkar, Swapna’s coach
Swapna almost pulled out of the 2017 IAAF World Championships because of back pain, and alleged that the organisers treated her badly.
Swapna signed a contract with Adidas for custom-made shoes. The company flew her to Germany to evaluate her feet.

Just five years ago, the house was a shed. There was one room and a big courtyard. Today, a concrete building is taking shape. A few yards away is a small Kali temple. The house would have been incomplete without it, says Basana.

One gold medal flipped their fortunes. When Swapna, 22, crossed the finish line in Jakarta, becoming the first Indian to win a heptathlon gold at the Asian Games, she gifted them a new lease on life. Basana gives an example: A few years ago, when she went to collect her caste certificate, government officials told her to come later. Then, last month, she went again. This time, she was told that it would be home-delivered and that she need not have come.

The village road used to be muddy and full of potholes. The villagers did not complain, mainly because they knew their voices would not reach those in power. Today, though, change is in the air, and on the road. All because of Swapna. Her home now has a big gate, adorned with flags of the state’s ruling party, and has become a hub of sorts. As we reach the house, Basana comes out smiling. She brings out plastic chairs from the room and arranges glasses of water on a table. She asks us how we like our tea—with or without milk. We are also offered sweets from a local shop.

“All the challenges in the past were not futile,” says Basana. “Finally, my daughter has grown up and made a mark. I would like to see her achieve her dream of winning gold at the Olympics.”

Support system: Swapna’s parents, Basana and Panchanan, at their village in Jalpaiguri. Support system: Swapna’s parents, Basana and Panchanan, at their village in Jalpaiguri.

A number of politicians have been in touch with Basana over the past few months, including Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi called her on Darjeeling MP S.S. Alhuwalia’s phone. Both leaders asked Basana just one thing: “What would you like to have from me?”

Basana’s reply: “Just your blessings and support so that my daughter can meet the country’s expectations in future.”

Apparently, Swapna has asked her not to accept money. “She tells me, ‘Ma, you have begged too much for me all through my life. But, please do not beg any more’,” says Basana. And, the mother obeys. She also skirts around subjects she has been told not to talk about. “You do not know her,” she says with a smile. “She is my daughter, but she is ultimately my guardian. If I say something that upsets her, she would give me a piece of her mind.”

Guiding light: Swapna with coach Subhash Sarkar (right). Guiding light: Swapna with coach Subhash Sarkar (right).

After repeated requests, Basana recalls their days of struggle. About ten years ago, she used to be a labourer in a tea estate, earning Rs60 daily. Her husband was a van rickshaw puller; he had a stroke a few years ago. She had to quit her job to be by his side.

Basana herself wanted to be an athlete, but making ends meet became her priority. A young Swapna, too, faced poverty, but had a mother who had big dreams for her. Hence, the name Swapna. When Swapna won in Jakatra, there was a lot of talk about her 12 toes, six on each feet. About how she was in constant pain while training and how custom shoes would help. Curiously, Basana, too, has six toes on each feet.

“I saw that she liked to play,” says Basana. “And I told myself I would go to any extent to make her a player. It all began when Swapna was in class four. She stood first in district-level school sports. As a result, her fees was waived.”

Scout, leader: Swapna’s first coach Sukanta Sinha with his wards. Scout, leader: Swapna’s first coach Sukanta Sinha with his wards.

The girl first took to high jump and running, but it was tough as she ran barefoot. They could not afford shoes. Tears rolled down Basana’s cheeks as she recalled the penury. Covering her eyes with the end of her sari, Basana told me about Swapna’s childhood diet: “Starchy rice at home and only water in school.”

So, rice for all three meals? I ask. “Rice, three times a day?” replies Panchanan. “Are you in your senses?”

Basana’s sister joined in, saying, “You city people have misconceptions about poor people’s food. My brother-in-law used to return home late at night. If the income was okay, he would bring some rice. Then, the children could have a second meal of the day.”

Now, however, the situation seems to have improved, at least looking at the spread for the guests. “It is all because of the money that came from our youngest daughter. She took all of us out of poverty,” said Panchanan.

Of the four children (two daughters and two sons), only Swapna could finish her studies. The rest had to drop out.

Feet and feat: An impression of Swapna’s feet on cement, kept at her Jalpaiguri home. Feet and feat: An impression of Swapna’s feet on cement, kept at her Jalpaiguri home.

In 2011, local coach Sukanta Sinha spotted Swapna’s talent and took her to the RSA Club in Jalpaiguri. Though trainers there saw the spark in Swapna, they were worried about the commute—her home was 20km away. “So, we arranged a cycle for her mother,” said Ujjal Das Chowdhury, another childhood guide of Swapna. “She used to bring her daughter to club practice every day, year after year.” On days that Basana fell sick, Swapna hitched a ride on her father’s van rickshaw.

In the first two years, Swapna’s performance improved a lot. She was even competing in national school meets and broke several national records, too. Her mother, in the meantime, went from door to door, begging for money for Swapna’s sports kit. She especially needed special shoes. “Common men, traders, politicians. I went to everyone,” said Basana. “Barring one or two of them, no one helped me.”

In 2013, impressed by Swapna’s efforts, the Sports Authority of India took her in and gave her a new coach, Subhash Sarkar. Basana, in fact, says Sarkar pleaded with her for the opportunity to teach Swapna. “The only condition was that Swapna would, from that point on, have to listen to only him,” she said. “I told him I did not have the money to make her a sports star, but he said money would not be a problem.”

Sarkar had first noticed Swapna in 2011, during the junior federation cup. “She was talented, no doubt. But her physical shape was unimpressive,” he says. “I saw her doing the high jump, but I thought it would not be the right discipline for her as she was too short.”

After Swapna was assigned to him, Sarkar immediately began working for the 2014 Asian Games, and she was sent to Malaysia for training. The shoes, however, remained an issue. Also, improper nutrition had left its marks, literally, on her body. “I was surprised by her condition,” said Sarkar. “There was a gap between two lumbar bones, which required surgery, and she was underdeveloped and short. And, due to lack of food, she did not have much immunity.”

Sarkar said it was a herculean task for him to do justice to her talent. “The child’s all-round growth and mental ability also needed to be tested,” he said. “I had to build her up from scratch. I had to understand what percentage of her potential could be realised. Sometimes, 60 to 70 per cent means wonderful results.” In Swapna’s case, he says, her injuries were harming her potential.

At the time, Swapna’s average jump was about 1.5m; she would have to jump about 1.9m to win an Asian Games medal. “My aim was to let her do better, better and better,” says Sarkar. “Within months I could better her height from 1.52m to 1.63m. I also understood that high jump alone would not be the ideal event for her to succeed at the Asian Games.”

Sarkar advised her to take up the heptathlon and, at the 2013 youth national games, she won silver with 4,435 points. The following June, she won silver at the junior Asian athletics championships, but threw her back out.

In September, she finished fifth at the Incheon Asian Games with 5,178 points. This was massive improvement in a short amount of time. But her body was still not strong enough. An injury like that could mean the end of the road for an athlete. And, according to a SAI source, “The doctors in almost all the state sports camps are not equipped to handle critical injuries.”

A corporate sponsor stepped in to help, and Sarkar sent Swapna to Mumbai for treatment. Apparently, rough practice sessions during childhood had taken their toll on her back. There were lumbar injuries and the surgeon suggested surgery. Sarkar, however, refused. He feared surgery would shorten Swapna’s career. The athlete, on the other hand, started thinking of getting a job. She had got an offer from the Railways. “Yes, I wanted to get a job because my family background was completely different,” says Swapna. “I had to shoulder many responsibilities.”

Sarkar says he stopped her because she was too young at the time to understand. He also felt that a village girl like Swapna would be vulnerable to the charms of city life. “I have seen many sportspersons having their careers shortened because of jobs,” he says. “Most of them, after marriage, got involved in family life and India lost gems. I asked her to give up the job offer. She was angry then, but I believe she has understood. Her family also put pressure on me to let her accept the job.”

Swapna had gotten into sports to get a job. “I knew that sportspersons have quotas,” she says. “So, I came to Kolkata to get a job. My coach, however, changed the course of the river. He asked me to have faith in myself. He told me a win was much bigger than getting a job. I trusted him.”

As if to make amends, Sarkar got Swapna an ONGC scholarship, which paid her 017,000. It was all going well, and the next target was the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships, to be held in Bhubaneswar. Swapna had amassed 5,897 points at the Federation Cup in Patiala in June, a month before the Asian championships. In Bhubaneswar, she surprised the field with a string of impressive performances, collecting 5,942 points and clinching gold. “Her gradual rise raised many eyebrows,” said Sarkar. “Many thought it was a fluke.”

She was on course for a podium finish at the 2018 Asian Games, and she was put on a special diet. Pain relievers helped her perform. She went to London for the IAAF World Championships in August, but without Sarkar. There, she almost pulled out of the event because of excruciating back pain, and also alleged that the organisers isolated her and treated her badly. “She never accepts diktats from anyone. She is very stubborn,” said Sarkar, with a smile.

Swapna had a forgettable outing in London; she finished 26th with 5,431 points and was crying when she called Sarkar. She was heartbroken.

Once she returned, Sarkar began to rebuild her. “Thinking of the Asian Games, I started giving her back exercises and modified training to control the pain all over her body, especially her back. I looked at every small technical issue,” said Sarkar.

It seemed to work. At trials in national camps, she scored 5,419 points in April 2018 and crossed 6,000 points in May. “I understood that her body had accepted the training I had put her through,” said Sarkar. Then came the Asian Games, and Sarkar knew Swapna would create history. At her home, though, it was a tense time for Basana. A few days into the event, Swapna developed a tooth infection. She also had a meniscus tear in her right knee and a bulging disc in her back. It hurt a lot, but she fought the pain.

The 800m race was the last event of the heptathlon. A tired Swapna was in the lead before the race, and had to only beat China’s Qingling Wang to secure a gold medal. Off they went. Swapna started conservatively, focusing only on the task at hand. Halfway in though, Basana, her eyes glued to the television, saw that Wang had taken the lead. She started bawling, ran out of the house and fell at the feet of the Kali idol in the courtyard. “I was praying to the goddess for some mercy,” she said. “And then I heard the roaring voices in the room. Everyone was shouting that Swapna had taken the lead.”

Swapna finished fourth, but had enough overall points to win the event. She ran past the finish line and lifted her arms in celebration. Thousands of miles away, Patkata erupted.

While she stretches and turns at the SAI centre in Kolkata, I ask her to pick which is more important—physical or mental strength. She smiles. “I think you cannot enter a competition without body strength,” she says. “Without mental strength, you cannot win.”

People close to her say that, apart from being strong, Swapna is stubborn, rigid and ruthless. They also conceded that these qualities held her in good stead at the Asian Games.

“Stubborn? Who said so?” she asks. “Yes, we have to show rough attitude in the game. But, you have to respect your competitors. Otherwise, you would not learn anything.”

But what about complaints of indiscipline? That she is a picky eater? Swapna grins. “I do not love non-vegetarian food,” she says. “Yes, I have oily and spicy food, but I do not like meat. I prefer a lot of green vegetables and fruits.”

Then how does she get her protein? Eggs, she says. She eats at least eight egg whites every day. What about her favourite food? “I am a village girl,” she says. “I like homemade dal and rice with potato chips. I miss it so much.”

As a child, she only wanted to become a high jump champion. But now she is a champion in a seven-event discipline. Does she want to become a winner in any single event? Swapna looks around and says, “Of course. I wish one day I become a champion in triple jump as well.”

She might not get time for that, though. Since the Asian Games performance, there have been expectations of an Olympics medal in 2020. And though Sarkar says that might be a steep ask, plans are being executed to help her breach the 7,000-point barrier. “If she remains fit, nothing is impossible,” said Sarkar.

Swapna has stepped up the intensity and is practising longer hours. “I am trying hard and I do not feel any pressure,” she says firmly. “If I am not successful the first time, there will always be a second time.”

To aid her quest, she signed a contract with Adidas for custom-made shoes to fit her six-toed feet. The company flew her to Germany to evaluate her feet. “That was really needed,” said Sarkar, who is desperate to get his ward in top shape before the Olympics.

Said Swapna: “It was really difficult. Because of the extra toes, my shoes got damaged quickly and there was a lot of pressure on my legs. At least that problem will be solved now.”

Her father, however, says she is still more comfortable barefoot. “Whenever she comes home, she runs out of the house barefoot,” said Panchanan.

“What is wrong with that?” Swapna retorts. “Am I a celebrity? I am a village girl and will remain so.” She then gets up in a huff, and tells a waiting friend that they must go see a fair in Kolkata in the evening.