From battling poverty to gunning for Asian glory, Hima Das' stunning rise as Indian athletics' pin-up girl
Hima Das has overcome poverty and defied stereotypes to scorch the tracks and going by her current form, this Dhing Express is not willing to slow down.
Evening has set in Dhing, a small village in central Assam. Ranjit Das along with his wife Jonali and four other children are eagerly waiting for the mini miracle. The visitor from Guwahati, Nipon Das, has promised them that he would ensure the family will get a chance to not only hear their daughter, who is hundreds of miles away in distant Poland, but also see her. They don't believe him. But when the WhatsApp video call is connected from Nipon's smartphone and the moving images of Hima appear on the screen, Ranjit and Jonali can barely contain their excitement. The eighteen-year-old fills them in with stories of the new country, its weather, its food and finally signs off with the assurance that the hard work and the sacrifices will be rewarded soon.
Hima may have lost out on a medal in the 400m at the Commonwealth Games but making it to the final and finishing the race with a personal best timing won many hearts. The youngster, with a characteristic streak of blonde dyed hair and her signature pre-race gesture where she sways her body akin to a dance move, is the new pin-up girl of Indian athletics. Her current personal best timing of 51.32 seconds clocked at Gold Coast makes her one of the top contenders for a medal in the Asian Games. Impressed with her rapid improvement, she has been included in the Union Sports Ministry's Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) which will assure enhanced financial support for her training with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Hima is currently in Warsaw undergoing training under Russian coach Galina Bukharova. "The training program feels very new for me as I am practising for the first time in an indoor set-up. My immediate goals are the under-20 world athletics to be held in Finland and the Asian Games in Jakarta," says Hima.
"Hima told me she was feeling homesick and I did not want it to affect her training. So I travelled 150 kilometres from Guwahati to make her speak to her family," says Nipon, one of Hima's first coaches.
Hima is expected to be part of the 400m relay team for the Asian Games and likely to make the cut for the individual event as well. The talented youngster is also training for the 200 metres. "We have left it to the Athletics Federation of India to take a call on which events they would want her to participate in the forthcoming tournaments," says Nipon.
Nipon has been part of the incredible tale of Hima which saw her capture the imagination of the Indian athletics barely two years after her first competitive appearance at the national level. "I first saw her at a junior state level athletics meet where she was competing in 100m. She was raw but had all the qualities to be a good runner. She was tomboyish and had a swagger about her and despite being a newcomer, she stood out among the others," remembers Nabajit Malakar, credited to have first spotted Hima.
"I convinced Nipon to have a closer look at Hima. Luckily he was convinced and took her under his wings," remembers Malakar. One of the five siblings born in a poor family of farmers in an obscure village in Assam, the journey for Hima would not be easy but Malakar and Nipon teamed up to script a success story.
"There was no future for her if she stayed back in the village and our first task was to ensure she received proper training. We pooled money to rent a small house near the Sarusajai Stadium in Guwahati for the 16-year-old," adds Malakar. Help also came through a radiologist in Guwahati, Dr Pratul Sharma, who took a keen interest in Hima's prodigious talent, keeping a close watch on her diet.
Hima continued to make rapid progress, much beyond the expectations of her coaches. "She may not have been the most technically sound runners but she was endowed with tremendous willpower," opines Nipon.
This never-to-say die attitude saw Hima take podium positions at various junior championships at the national level in 200m races. She was destined for bigger things and soon, she was representing India in Asian Youth Championship followed by the World Youth Championship. It was at the World Youth Championship — where she finished fifth — that her career trajectory began to take an upward swing. She was drafted into the national camp where she started training for 200 metres.
"We were not sure if she was good enough for international tournaments at this stage. So we decided to push for the 400m as it gave her an opportunity to compete in two events- the 4x100 m relay and the individual race," recounts Malakar.
Without much experience in an event which is known for its endurance and strategy, Hima created a stunning upset at the Federation Cup this year beating the likes of Olympian MR Poovamma and qualifying for the Commonwealth Games. "For someone who started training in 400m barely six months ago, what she has achieved is beyond our expectations. Even a few months ago, if someone told us Hima will make it to the final of the Commonwealth Games, it would seem like a fairytale," says Nipon as he refuses to set any specific targets for Hima.
She has the best timing among runners in 400m from Asia in 2018 which has raised hopes of a medal in the Asian Games. In the last edition of the Asian Games in Incheon, the bronze medal in 400m went to MR Poovamma with a timing of 52.36 seconds, significantly slower than Hima's personal best. "I just want to better my timings every time I race and I know medals will come my way if I make steady improvement. I don't believe in pressures and burden of expectations," says Hima.
Hima has overcome poverty and defied stereotypes to scorch the tracks and going by her current form, this Dhing Express is not willing to slow down.
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