'Next Hima Das?': Manipur's golden girl brings new hope in Athletics
Manipur has given India several Olympians and medallists across sports, but there has never been a realistic hope in Athletics. Till now, as Huidrom Bhumeshwory Devi shows glimpses of the prodigious form Hima Das showed four years ago.
Imphal: At the SAI centre in Manipur, which has seen stars like Mary Kom and Mirabai Chanu break out in the last two decades, a new name is on everybody's lips these days - Huidrom Bhumeshwory Devi.
Touted variously as the next big thing in Manipur sports and as the 'next Hima Das', this 18-year-old's rise is being followed closely by sports enthusiasts for one special reason - she is a rare Athletics star to have emerged from Manipur.
Since 1984, when Manipur sent its first sportsperson to the Olympics 35 years after its integration with India, there have been 19 Olympians from this state. Hockey, Boxing, Weightlifting, Judo and Archery have been the sports represented. There was never any hope of finding an Athletics star worthy of the world stage, in track or field. Till now.
"Hima Das is also from the northeast. If she can do it, I can do it too. My age may be less but I aim to qualify for the Asian Games next year," Bhumeshwory told The Bridge.
Her hopes and the faith put in her by her coaches are not unfounded. Just like Hima Das four years ago, this 18-year-old has been shaving off massive seconds from her personal best at an alarming rate. Over the last year, Bhumeshwory has brought down her 800m timing from 2:21 (just before the Junior Nationals in 2021) to 2:12 (at the Khelo India University Games in 2022). Her current timing is as good as one of the finalists at the 2018 Asian Games. In the hypothetical situation that she keeps improving her timing at the same rate till the Asian Games next year - just like Hima had done - she will have reached the medal spots.
"My best disciplines are the 800m and 1500m distances, but just because Hima Das had broken out as a 400m star, I keep wishing to run that too," she said.
Kailash Kasar, the chief Athletics coach at the Imphal SAI centre, said Bhumeshwory Devi is without doubt his most prodigious ward ever.
"A natural talent like Bhumeshwory is a one in a million opportunity. Like Avinash Sable, who keeps breaking his own records, this girl has been competing all by herself in the junior circuit. The best part is how she invariably improves her personal best at every race," he said.
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"Bhumeshwory will be the next Hima Das! Her body structure is perfect to be the star Manipur has been waiting for," said Sanjaoba Lambamayum, a former Manipuri track athlete who now plays for the BSF Athletics team.
"Because Manipur is a poor state, our athletes do not get the food, juices required to be good in Athletics. Also, there is a lot less awareness about Athletics in our state. Parents want to send their children to Boxing or Weightlifting, but running around is not seen as something productive. Things have changed with Bhumeshwory's rise in the last few years," he said.
Can northeast India produce a track star after all?
From the 100-metre race to the marathon, Bhumeshwory was always first in every school meet. But in 2016, when she fell sick after running the statewide Manipur Marathon, her mother - a school teacher - forbade her from running. Her father had died of a heart attack ten years ago, and her mother was scared something similar might happen to Bhumeshwory if she ran such long distances.
But nothing could stop the Class 7 girl from follow her track dreams.
"I waited till my mother left for school and then I took a Rs 10 auto to the Khuman Lampak stadium and picked up a form to enlist myself into Athletics training. I didn't even have a passport photo for the form, I cut off a friend from a photo and used that instead," Bhumeshwory said.
In 2017, Bhumeshwory joined the SAI centre and immediately started training with seniors. In 2019, she won the bronze medal at the Junior Nationals. At the senior nationals, she had to make do with 4th and 5th place finishes, till the Khelo India University Games in Bengaluru earlier this year. Her rapid progress meant that she easily won the gold medal even though she ran a conservative race.
But despite her breakthrough on the track, Bhumeshwory makes sure to keep running for fun - and prize money. Even last week, she won the first prize of Rs 1 lakh at the 21-km marathon organised in Manipur as part of pre-Independence Day celebrations.
And just like Manipur has clasped the young star to their hearts, Bhumeshwory too is nothing without her home state.
"The Reliance Foundation in Odisha invited me to train with them. I know I might have to go there eventually to train for my Olympic dream, but I came back to Manipur because the food didn't suit me there. I felt alone, I wanted to have the kangsoi from home," said Bhumeshwory.
"Mary Kom, who trained here all her life, was my first sports idol. Everyone here kept saying her name when I was growing up. It was easy to want to be like her."
Mary Kom, Hima Das - the stakes have been set high with the comparisons. Can Bhumeshwory handle the expectations? Can northeast India produce a track star after all?