The announcer’s voice was loud, sharp and clear: ‘In lane 3 from India, Nirmla, the winner of the Gold at the Asian Championship.’ Nirmla Sheoran, like a timid deer caught in the headlights, stepped forward and did a namaste to the 55,000 fans inside the Olympic Park stadium and also to the millions watching live across the globe.
Her face had the pallor of an athlete who would rather be watching than running here. Her body language was of a person who had ended up in the wrong party.
In the right lane, a few feet ahead, stood Allyson Felix, the nine-time World Champion and a six-time Olympic Champion. On this very track in the 2012 London Olympics, she had won the 200m. She stood there once again, emotionless, a split-second smile breaking the icy veneer when her name was announced to the roar of adoring fans. She owned the track, the stadium, the air around it for the next 50 seconds or so. This was her event. It wasn’t her arrogance. After four Olympic Games and five World Championships, Allyson Felix virtually owned the events and the medals around it.
The rest were happy to run in her wake; to be able to say that they ran against her. Nirmla was feeling that at the moment. In Bhubaneswar after winning the Asian Athletic Championships Gold, she was asked about running against Felix and Nirmla couldn’t pronounce her name. For her Felix was the '49 wali’. Felix has a personal best of 49.26 in the 400m.
As the starter’s gun exploded, Nirmla sluggishly got off the block. Felix started as usual, fluid and moving into a rhythm that would slowly settle and work like a fine-tuned Ferrari engine. Nirmla ran for the first 50 metres before she realised the quality of the opposition. She didn’t give up. But in the conditions put in front of her, she ran. She couldn’t stop. Her legs were heavy. She didn’t know what to do, neither before the race nor comprehend it’s complexities after.
By the 200m mark, Nirmla was pushing herself. Felix and Salwa Eid Naser were smooth, with perfect hand-stride co-ordination. Nirmla was sluggish; whatever fluidity she had when she timed 51.28 to qualify for the World Championships was over. Back then, the air back in Patiala or Bhubaneswar made her comfortable. She was an alien here. In her first World Championships, she felt out-numbered and vulnerable.
In lane 2 was Lydia Jele of Botswana, a 200m finalist at the 2013 Moscow WC; in lane 4 was Felix, the empress; in lane 5 was Shericka Jackson of Jamaica, the Olympic bronze medallist in the 400m; in lane 6 was the Greek Irini Vasiliou, in her first WC; in lane 7 was Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser, the gold winner at the 2015 World Youth Championships; in lane 8 was Nigeria’s Yinka Ajayi a member of the 2015 gold medal-winning relay team in the African Youth Championships and in lane 9 was Novlene Williams Mills of Jamaica, a relay runner with three silvers and one bronze in four Olympic Games. Such was the quality that surrounded Nirmla.
By the time the field had settled around the 300m mark, Nirmla’s movements were not of a 400m runner. Her strides had gone astray. The symmetry and the erectness of the physical form had now tapered to the right. She was a runner who now had no control over herself. She felt 55,000 people watching her. Her body had stiffened. She wanted it to stop. Finally it did.
Nirmla probably didn’t even look at the clock. Her time was 53.07. Naser won the semis with a time of 50.08, a Bahrain national record. In second place was Felix with 50.12. The American had coasted through, content with finishing in the top two. Mills and Jackson ran 50.67 and 50.70 respectively.
It was 10 minutes later that Nirmla walked through the mixed zone. Her movements were ponderous as she held her spikes in one hand. Physically, she was letting it go. It was over; the worst was over.
Nirmla spoke about tightness in her muscles. And when asked about her coach, she looked like a person who had just seen a dead relative pop up in front of her.
“I don’t have my personal coach with me,” she said. “It’s been almost 12 days since I have come here and I have been training on my own.” Nirmla did admit that Russian Galina Bukharina, a 4X400m relay coach is with the team. But what she left unsaid was how much help Bukharina actually gave her.
“But I speak to my personal coach Vijender on the phone and he advises me,” she said. She did say that PT Usha told her to get a good timing. “She told me to get my speed right and look at the timing,” Nirmla said.
Nirmla, who comes from a village in Bhiwani, Chehad Khurd, still seemed out of sorts. “It’s a coach problem for me,” she explained. “I have reached this far only because of my coach and my father. Nobody has done anything for me.”
In fact, Nirmla’s father went into debt after raising money for her training. Some of the debts were paid off with the money she got for qualifying for the Rio Olympics. The only time Nirmla smiled when she was reminded of the '49 wali'. “It felt good to run with her,” she said.
One can pin Nirmla down by questioning her about the timing in the semi-final. But how does a runner like Nirmla face the challenges of a World Championship? It’s another thing running in the Federation Cup in Patiala with around 85 people watching who could dare to come in that 44 degree heat; or in front of the 10,000 people in Bhubaneswar under humid conditions where you knew that your coach was around who understood your frailties and strengths.
Indian athletes hardly travel. It’s similar to someone swimming in the village pond, and then all of a sudden being thrown at the deep end of the ocean. Yet she entered the semi-final. The difference between a semi-final and a final is about talent and quality. But it’s also about raising the levels of the athlete, breaking a 400m run down into sections and making them understand.
A World Championship is not a gift handed over because you made the qualifying mark. If an athlete is asked questions about performance, the same holds good for the coach too. And the federation.
Before leaving the mixed zone area, situated in the bowels of the stadium, Nirmla said she was going back into training for the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games. “I need to get back to the podium,” said Nirmla. “Plus I have to target Manjit Kaur’s National Record of 51.05.”
Nirmla will be back on the Olympic Park track in a few days when the qualification for the 4X400m relay happens. Nirmla anchors the Indian team. So does Felix for the US team. Hopefully, the clash this time, if at all, would be for Nirmla to gain experience and be inspired by one of track’s greatest.
Updated Date: Aug 08, 2017 11:25 AM