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Athletics

Rezoana Mallick Heena, the sparkling youngster, looks to re-dazzle after an injury hiccup

Back to the track after recovering from a hamstring injury, Rezoana Mallick Heena is looking to re-dazzle. She emerged as a prodigious talent in the Asian circuit in 2023 with a record-breaking spree.

Rezoana Mallick Heena, the sparkling youngster, looks to re-dazzle after an injury hiccup
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Rezoana Mallick Heena has recently made a comeback to the track at the Gachibowli stadium in Hyderabad after recovering from a hamstring injury. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement) 

By

Sudipta Biswas

Updated: 12 May 2024 7:18 AM GMT

There was a glaring miss at the Asian U20 Athletics Championships held in Dubai in late April. Despite possessing an immensely talented quarter-miler at the youth level, India missed out on the women's 400m gold.

The defending champion, 16-year-old Rezoana Mallick Heena, could not make it to the continental championships as she was yet to recover from a hamstring injury sustained in November last.

Her absence was felt even more when the Indian 4x400m mixed relay team were pipped by China in the final.

Records galore

Early in 2023, the scenario around women's 400m was much more promising.

Rezoana took the Indian athletics scene by storm. Standing at 5 feet 7 inches, she rose as a grand promise for India and rewrote quite a few records. She not only won the 400m gold at the Youth Asian Championships in Tashkent, Uzbekistan but also broke the U-18 national record held by Jisna Mathew, clocking a magnificent 52.98s.

She also rechristened the Championships record of 53.02s set by Salwa Eid Naser of Bahrain eight years ago but fell stunningly just 0.02 seconds short of the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) qualification standard for last year's Asian Games, set at 52.96s.

Such was her spectacular rise that Rezoana’s 52.98s was the world-leading time and fastest 400m race among Indians, across all age categories, last season.

Given her supreme athleticism and hunger for success, Rezoana was expected to sustain her sparkling rise and break into the senior circuit soon.

But in less than a year time that buzz around her has settled down, and Rezoana is nowhere in the picture. She will miss the 27th Federation Cup in Bhubaneshwar as she is not competition-ready.

Rezoana was disappointed, not only because she failed to turn up at the Asian Championships, but also because India missed out on the women's 400m and mixed team relay gold.

“I was disappointed that I could not compete at the Asian U20 Athletics Championships," Rezoana told The Bridge over the phone.

"Last year, I achieved the leading time, but this year, we did not even win a medal in 400m. In the mixed relay also, India missed the gold medal," she lamented.

"Then I thought next year when I go to the Asian Championships, I will achieve a new record," determination thundered in her voice.

After the dreamy first ride into athletics last season, which brought to the forefront how her Instagram reels helped her to be spotted by coach Arun Ajay and took her to Bengaluru from the countryside of West Bengal, the injury gave her a reality check.

For five months, Rezoana was coachless; her bonhomie with coach Arun Ajay was snapped. She had to run pillar to post, craving guidance to recover from the injury.

‘My own coach did not support me’

Asked what made her disassociate with Arun Ajay, considered India's most innovative athletics coach for his application of unique methods, Rezoana did not hide her emotion.

"After I suffered the hamstring injury, the coach was not focusing on my recovery. I was sent back home. The kind of injury I had suffered, other athletes would have taken much time to get back on track, but I was back on track within 20 days. But the coach was not serious about me. For a few months, I did not have any coach," said Rezoana.

"I could not practice well. The training and practice required for a world champion and to go up from this level I was not getting that there. Sir (Arun Ajay) used to modify my training earlier regularly, but lately, that was missing," she alleged.

Guided by Gregory Little

With her Indian coach refusing to oversee her recovery process, Rezoana got help from the unlikeliest source from a remote location in the Caribbean. The injury was a blessing in disguise for her with legendary Gregory Little, the Jamaican coach who drew up the rise of Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake in the past, coming to her rescue.

"I could not recover well from the injury and was not able to find a way out," said Rezoana.

“Nehal Sagar bhaiya (an Indian sprinter), with whom I trained in Bengaluru and gave my first pair of spike, helped me out. He got me in touch with coach Gregory Little. He knows him because he attended a training camp in Jamaica, and he told the coach about me. Little was impressed after watching my videos and agreed to help me," she apprised.

"My hamstring injury has been healed because of him," stated Rezoana, adding "He helped me regulate my training; he also devised what strength training would be perfect for me. My own coach did not support me, but the Jamaican coach gave the daily workout routine and strength training formula to help me recover from the injury," uttered the Bengal athlete.

Rezoana Mallick Heena taking a stance during a training session at the Gachibowli Stadium. (Photo credit: Special Arrangement)

Rezoana was supposed to travel to Jamaica too, but that has never been materialised as the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) did not approve her request for foreign training. Reacting to that, she said, “Maybe because I am underage”.

But her hardships were far from over. “As I was getting inputs from a foreign coach, I had to look for a ground where I could train. The ground near my home did not have a synthetic track. Hence, I went to Hisar. I was training there before joining the SAI Hyderabad. I trained in Hisar for two months from January to February. After that, I was supposed to go to Jamaica in March, but AFI did not respond to my mail," revealed Rezoana.

She is still in touch with Little, but 'not regularly' as she has now relocated to Sports Authority of India's Hyderabad facility to get under the wings of Junior National Athletics coach N Ramesh, the coach of Jyothika Sri Dandi, who recently propelled the Indian 4x400m women's relay to the Paris Olympics in the Bahamas.

"After coming to Hyderabad in March, I gained my full fitness, and now I want to continue to train here," said Rezoana. "I know Ramesh sir from the very early days of my career. When I went to Junior Asia (U18 Asian Athletics Championships) he escorted us. He is very supportive of me. The coaches and physios are all helpful here."

Rezoana, sponsored by Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) since March 2023, is now staying at a rented house in Hyderabad along with her mother and sister.

"She approached me and I immediately asked her to come and train here. We should back the talented athletes when they are injured. She is an immensely talented athlete. Last year, what a performance she put up at the Asian youths," said Ramesh.

Genes of athletes

Grown up in Shondanga village of Nadia district, located 122 kilometres north of Kolkata, Rezoana was a free-spirited child. There were of of course great genes, with her father Rezaul and mother Anima national level Kabaddi players. And her penchant for athletics was given a wing by her parents' passion for making her daughter an athlete.

Such is the culture for the sport at home that Rezoana's younger sister Shiny, named after legendary Indian athlete Shiny Wilson, the 1986 Asian Games silver medallist in 400m, also took up athletics.

Following her elder sister's trajectory, Shiny, now 12, also dreams of becoming an athlete and currently training in Hyderabad. "Shiny has just come here. We are going to try the triathlon first. One has to do the combined sports and later the specialisation. It develops a strong base to perform at the international level," stated Ramesh.

"We have always loved sports. Me and my husband were kabaddi players, and now we want to make our two daughters athletes," said Anima, who shuttles between Hyderabad and Shondanga regularly to manage her home and young children.

Why athletics?

For Rezoana, her father Rezaul has always functioned as her guide.

"I have been practising athletics since when I was five. My father used to train me initially. After that, for six years, I trained under Aniruddh Pal Choudhary at the government college ground in Krishanagar. And then for two years at SAI Kolkata under Dr Kalyan Chaudhary. Then Arun Ajay sir contacted me after watching my Instagram reels," said Rezoana.

When asked what led her to pick athletics, she said, "Since my childhood, I grew up in a different setup. Unlike other children, who grew up watching cartoons, my father used to show me videos of Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix. He has several videos of athletes on his desktop, and he always used to show us that. And that grew interest in me."

Focus on 400m

Despite being young, Rezoana has a limpid vision. To cut down pressure on her muscles, she has decided to compete only in 400m this season.

“This year I am focusing only on 400m. I competed in 200m as well in the past, but this year my focus is solely on 400 which is my main event. I will see later if I can compete in 200m again,” said Rezoana.

Asked why she chose 400m, she gave an articulate account of her understanding of athletics. “I feel 400m is the best for the Indians. Training is a bit different for 200m. Now, I have just returned from injury and regaining my optimum fitness, I do not want to push myself too much," Rezoana opined.

Coach Ramesh has already devised his plan for the Bengal girl.

"At the moment, I just need to back her, make her feel comfortable and help her grow in confidence because she has just come back from injury. When she is comfortable, she will adapt to training and slowly I will get her through my methods. We will also train her mentally. Right now, she will compete only in 400m because her muscle memory supports that. At the same time, she cannot pull off speed suddenly, as required in 200," remarked Ramesh.

Ultimate target: Changing India's Olympic track record

Now back on the track at the Gachibowli stadium, Rezoana's ultimate wish is to fulfil India's long-pending wish to win an Olympic medal in the track event. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, Neeraj Chopra won javelin throw gold in the field event.

“I want to win a medal at the Olympics. India has not won a medal in the track event, so I aim to fulfill that if possible," swore Rezoana.

She, however, could not make the cut for the Paris Olympics, and with the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics still four years from now, Rezoana has her eyes set on the 2026 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.

"I want to compete in the 2026 Commonwealth Games and Asian Games, and win a medal," said Rezoana.

But before that, she wants to compete at the National Youth Athletics Championships, slated for June 15-17 in Chhatisgarh, and the Junior World Championships in Peru, scheduled for August.

“Now everything is going well, and my target is to train well and qualify for the World Championships. But I do not push my body much because I want to win medals at the 2026 CWG and Asian Games," declared the youngster.

To her claim, she has a hell-bent dedication. She does not mind staying away from home for so long. "To achieve success, one needs to sacrifice a bit," Rezoana asserted.

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