When India was gearing up for the Rio Olympics two years ago, Hima Das was making a long walk back home from a muddy football field in rural Assam, wondering if she could replace the Dhing jersey on her back with the India jersey some day. Little did she know that she was marked out for even greater things or that she would soon wear the national colours, but in a sport she had not considered yet.
As the Commonwealth Games approach, 18-year-old Hima has turned out to be the top medal contender from among the country’s sprinters. The distance on the track may be short but the road to it is frighteningly long for most Indian runners. Yet Hima ‘ in what is perhaps a true short distance runner’s spirit ‘ has made a long climb short.
From not even being in contention for a spot in the CWG team to qualifying for the 400 metre event by 0.03 seconds, as big names like Karnataka’s MR Poovamma failed to qualify, the story of Hima’s meteoric rise smacks of great things to come. Fittingly, she is the only one in the 31-member athletics contingent to have made the cut in three disciplines – the 4x400m relay, the 400m sprint and the 200m sprint.
“I do not worry about the pressure of big tournaments, or timings, or what someone else is doing in another lane. I just love to run,” said Hima from the Commonwealth Games Village in Australia’s Gold Coast.
“I am a junior and I have to prepare for each event step by step. There is a long road still to run, the timings will take care of themselves,” she added.
The speed barriers she has broken in every successive race is proof that Hima’s timings are taking care of themselves. In the Bangkok Asian Youth Championships in May 2017, she finished the 200m sprint in 24.52 seconds; in the Nairobi World Youth Championships in July the same year, she clocked 24.31 seconds; in the Jakarta Asian Games test event in February this year, she did it in 23.59 seconds; in March, she cut it down to 23.37 seconds in the Federation Cup in Patiala, well below the qualifying cut-off for the Commonwealth Games. The best timing recorded this year in the 200m sprint has been 22.83 seconds, by Brittany Brown of the USA. The national record is 22.82 seconds, by Saraswati Dey Saha in 2002. Both figures seem within leaping distance for Hima.
The sports day that changed everything
While the statistical possibilities of her career are intriguing, the incredible rise of Hima Das from a family of rice farmers – from not being aware of Commonwealth Games or even the sport of athletics till two years ago, to embarking on her first training programme barely fourteen months ago, to being feted as someone who can be the fastest Indian sprinter ever – emerges as the real story.
Hima recalled, “I used to play everything every chance I got, but people in my village used to say football is in my blood because my father used to be a footballer.”
“Teams from other villages would sometimes hire me for Rs 500 per match. I used to play as a striker and I could score many goals because I was very fast. ”
“In the summer of 2016, a teacher came up to me during sports day and told me he had never seen somebody run as fast as me and that I should consider competing outside school. I thought I could finally use my speed. I used to be a big fan of Ronaldo and Messi earlier, but I knew the Indian team was not up there.”
Hima began running in the same muddy fields where she had played football till then, with no coach except for an occasionally willing friend to keep time. In January 2017, she represented Nagaon district at a state-level athletics event, where she caught some important eyes.
Nipon Das, who is one of the most experienced coaches at the Assam Athletic Association, said, “I knew the first time I saw Hima run that I had never seen somebody without training to be so advanced. I knew she would go very far.”
No sprinter of Hima’s speed has ever represented Assam, or even northeast India. Nipon Das explained, “I have seen many athletes aiming to be the best in their state, or the best in the country, or the best in their age category. Hima has no such thing. Whatever target is set before her, she says, ‘leave it to me, I can do it.’ And then she goes and does it.”
After the state meet in January 2017, coaches Nipon Das and Nabajit Malakar approached Hima and suggested that she start training under them. “Hima said she would have to ask her parents,” recalled Nipon Das with a chuckle. The two of them then arranged her lodging and started a training programme which would reap fruits in the form of a CWG medal possibility as soon as in the next 14 months.
“I have always loved running, but after I started training in Guwahati, I began to feel a few changes in my style. I knew then I had found what I had to do,” said Hima.
Born to Run
A relay medal is a possibility, but the most realistic chance of a medal for Hima in the CWG has turned out to be the 400m sprint, a discipline she started training for only four months ago.
There has been clear daylight between Hima and the rest of the field most times she has competed at the national level, but her most stunning run was at the Federation Cup earlier this month, where she left stalwarts like Asian Games medallist Poovamma in her wake. She clocked 51.97 seconds, a timing which would have earned her 4th place at the 2014 Commonwealth Games.
Coach Nipon Das, who is behind the recent tactical decision to convert Hima from a 100m specialist to the quartermile discipline, said, “The international standards in the 100m are too high. We prepared for the Commonwealth Games with specific aims of the longer sprints, and this will be the plan going forward. To expect a CWG medal would be very unfair, but I am confident she will shave off a few more miliseconds from her time.”
While athletics might have turned out to be her calling only recently, Hima always seems to have known she was meant to run. She said, “When I was in Class 2, we used to walk about 5km to school. I did not know of Olympics or even the sport of athletics then.”
“One day a friend went on ahead in a car and left me behind. I was so angry I wanted to run and outrace the car. I ran so fast that I tripped and fractured my knee. I have always become a different person when I run.”
On the blonde streak of hair which she has sported since the Asian Youth Championships in Bangkok last year, Hima said, “I have always been a little different from everybody else and I’m proud of it. Many people colour the back of their hair, but I want no one to miss it.”
No Indian sprinter has won an individual medal at a major international event since Milkha Singh’s storied run in the 1958 CWG. Sixty years after the Flying Sikh, can a flying streak of golden hair blaze a similarly historic path at the same games?