Sprinter VK Vismaya hopes for a good show by Indian relay team at Tokyo Olympics
Heartbreakingly, VK Vismaya would not be a part of the team taking the stage in the Tokyo Olympics. She continues to wish for the mixed relay team.
While we can't boast about a rich legacy in world athletics, not many people acknowledge the fact that our women have been undisputed champions in the 4x400m relay in Asia winning five Asian games gold medals on the trot.
When our fifth gold was at stake at the 2018 Asiad, we had a relatively inexperienced squad of runners.
While Hima Das was the strongest of the four runners, she had an international experience of only a few months. Most often, teams tend to keep their best runner for the last leg in the relay so as to make amends in case of a mistake in the early legs.
It would have been a no-brainer to keep Hima for the last leg and let the relative inexperience of the other racers complete the initial legs. Galina Bukharina, a former Soviet athlete is the head coach of Indian athletes in Patiala. She insisted Hima take the first leg and give a sizeable lead for the lesser runners to capitalise on.
The move was risky.
Galina put trust in Velluya Koroth Vismaya to take the last changeover. Velluya was the least experienced of them all. This was her first international event. She had failed to qualify for the individual 400m for the Asian Games after a disappointing time of 53.30s at the Inter-State Athletics Championships.
Despite these mediocre returns, Galina trusted Vismaya to bring glory home. The prime contenders for the gold medal were Bahrain. They had the likes of Salwa Eid Naser, the silver medallist from 2017 World Athletics Championship and Asian record holder for the 400m. Bahrain stuck to a customary relay strategy keeping Naser for the last leg.
As expected, India's best two runners gave a sizeable lead for Saritaben Gayakwad and Vismaya to hold on during the last 2 legs. When Gayakwad handed over the baton to Vismaya, there was a loud roar from India's second leg runner Machettira Raju Poovamma "Race edathu oddu" (Take the race and run).
"I could see that she was nervous. I just yelled at her in Malayalam" said Poovamma during the post-race interviews.
These words of encouragement were enough for Vismaya as the then 21-year-old ran like a panther on a hunt to register her personal best. Going a full second quicker than her timing in inter-state championships, she completed her leg in just 52.30s bringing India a fifth consecutive Asiad gold in the 4x400 relay event.
"I just wanted to make sure that I didn't let the team down," Vismaya says after the race. "So I just ran my hardest until I got to the finish line."
Humble Roots from God's own country
This was a burst to stardom for a skinny girl from Sreekandapuram village near Kannur district in Kerala. Prior to this race, it was impossible to find a page on Google with a mention of Vismaya. Her only success was a medal at the Inter-University Games in 2017.
But what stood out was Vismaya's ability to not get bogged down by the might of the mountain she had to scale.
"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," she had said in an interview with ESPN.
Included in the squad ahead of established runners like Nirmala Sheoran who ran the final of the 400 metres event, there were spurs of disagreements. But everything was shushed once the bookish girl from God's own country became a part of a legacy that would be difficult to match in the years to come.
This shot to fame, however, was not going to distract Vismaya from her inadequacies. Born to a construction labourer who worked every bit hard to help his family lead a comfortable life, Vismaya had humble roots. Hence, it was not surprising when she continued her studies while training despite her Asian success.
Earning a B.Sc. degree with perfect scores after an A+ in high school, Vismaya entered the 2019 season as the lead runner for the mixed relay team. The team impressed at the World Athletics Championship in Doha by qualifying for the final with a staggering time of 3:16.14 in the heats. Also, qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in the process.
Although the team finished an ordinary seventh in the final, they clocked their season best of 3:15.77.
Heartbreakingly, Vismaya would not be a part of the team taking the stage in Tokyo. India's mixed relay team would feel the void of a determined athlete like Vismaya. While Vismaya was not selected to represent the mixed relay team, the women's relay team faced challenges of their own.
With a plethora of injuries in the camp, the team had to pull out of the World Athletics Relays which took place in Poland this year. As the second wave scare grew larger and many countries suspending flights from India, the Olympic dream of Vismaya seems to have gotten away a bit from her.
But as every Indian athlete, Vismaya is as determined to be on a trip to the pinnacle of sports. Despite her absence, she continues to wish for the mixed relay team that will compete for the first time in the Olympics. While speaking to The Bridge, she says,
"We have a realistic chance of reaching the final, considering how difficult it is to reach the finals at the Olympics. If we reach the final, who knows, on a given day we can go and win a medal too."
Although the dream is still more than 3 years away, Vismaya is adamant about her goals. There is a lot that her family went through to get Vismaya where she is now. She wants to give it back.
"Like every other person, my dream is to have my own house, job and I want to take care of my sister. Because of her, I came into sports, so I want to give back something to her. We still stay in a rental house, so having our own house will be a big thing.", she say.
"My only disappointment is people are not aware of athletics. I don't think athletes who go to the Olympics or even come close to win a medal at the Olympics get recognised by the public. I went to the World Championships; we qualified for the Olympics, but I don't know how many people know about it. I don't think, even in my hometown, they will know me."
Slightly disappointed about the limelight that our athletes get throughout the year, Vismaya wants to change the outlook of sports in our nation. Rightly so, every Indian athlete goes through a lot. Qualifying from a nation with a population of a billion and compete with athletes with an abundance of knowledge and training, the life of an Indian athlete is not an easy task.
It is a collective responsibility for all of us that the athletes like Vismaya can feel our backing as they scale greater heights in the future so as to ensure that Indian Athletics' fate at the Olympics can be turned around.