Hima Das' meteoric rise from an Assam village to the Gold Coast
On Tuesday evening in Patiala, Hima Das called her mother. She had just won gold in the 400m race of the Federation Cup. She had clocked 51.97 seconds -- under the 52-second qualifying standard set by the Athletics Federation of India for selection to the Commonwealth Games squad.
Now the 18-year-old wanted to share the news with her mother. It wasn't the easiest call to put through. Mobile connectivity in Dhing village in Nagaon district isn't the greatest. Yet eventually Jonali Das picked up.
"Commonwealth Games? What's that?"
Hima tried to explain what the competition -- the biggest of her career -- was, but her mother finally gave up trying to understand.
"Will you be on TV? Then it's probably a good thing," she said.
It might have been easy for Hima to find humour in her mother's confusion but for the fact that she too was in the same position two years ago. "Even two years ago, I didn't have any idea what the Commonwealth Games were," she says.
The very fact that she now is going as India's top hope on the track in the marquee quarter-mile event is truly a remarkable if meteoric journey.
Hima is the youngest of five siblings of Jomali and Ronjit Das, a marginal rice farmer. Athletics had never seriously been considered. Neither did her father have the money to spend to nurture her sporting career nor was there even a proper place to train. Instead she played football on a muddy field in her village school. "I played for local clubs as a striker and I thought maybe one day I would play for India," she says. It was only in 2016 that her PE teacher suggested that a football career would be hard and she should instead try out an individual event.
After a few months of training on the muddy turf on which the rest of the schoolchildren played football, Das would compete at the state championships in Guwahati. She took part in the 100m, not least because she had trained in none of the tactics required for the longer distances, and finished with a bronze.
The state of Assam isn't particularly known for athletics and when Hima was sent to compete at the Junior National Championships in Coimbatore, as a reward for medalling at the state meet, there were few eyes on her. "No one really expected her to do much," says Nabajit Malakar, who accompanied the Assam team to Coimbatore. "But she made it to the final of the 100m to Coimbatore. It was remarkable that this girl who had never even trained properly had managed to reach the final and was competing along with girls who had been training seriously."
Assam's Hima Das blows the field away in the women's 400m at the Federation Cup. Clocks 51.97 seconds to finish under the AFIs qualifying standard for the CWG of 52 seconds. pic.twitter.com/RV6FzRxRpk
- jonathan selvaraj (@jon_selvaraj) 6 March 2018
But while Hima had clear potential, she had no medal with which to push her case. Once the Assam team returned home, she might well have slipped through the cracks. But Malakar and another coach, Nipon Das, didn't let that happen. "We asked her parents whether we could take her to train in Guwahati. Her father also agreed quickly. He was happy if we could feed her three times a day," says Das, who along with a local doctor, Pratul Sharma, quickly raised the money to rent a room for the girl.
Although conscious of Hima's talent, Das was surprised just how much he had underestimated it once she started training. "I never knew anyone who had her raw speed," he says. "I just gave her basic training and she just kept improving." Within a month, the results began to occur.
At the school nationals in February, Hima won a bronze in the 100m and a silver in the 200m. That saw her qualify for the Youth (U-18) Nationals in Hyderabad, where she won the same medals. Her timing of 24.85seconds in the 200m event saw her qualify for the Asian Youth Championships in Bangkok in May. There she improved her timing to 24.52 seconds. Hima only finished seventh in Bangkok. She returned with two things: a streak of blonde dyed hair that she maintains to this day ("she always wanted to stand out of the crowd," says coach Malakar) and a qualification for the World Youth Championships in Nairobi. Unexpectedly, she nearly became the first Indian to medal in a track event, eventually finishing fifth with a time of 24.31 seconds.
That performance finally saw Hima selected for the senior national camp in Patiala. She kept training in the 200m, and continued her remarkable success with a gold at the Asian Games test event in Jakarta last month. She improved on her personal best there too, clocking 23.59 seconds. "This is something you don't see in many athletes. She improves her performance with every race she runs. It is nothing short of amazing," says Malakar.
Despite her success in the 200m, coaches at the national camp felt Hima's future lay in the quarter-mile, where Indians have traditionally been successful. And so Hima was told she would be running the 400m in the Federation Cup. The 400m is considered to be among the most challenging track events, with its testing of the athlete's speed, endurance and tactics. "Sprint runners don't find it easy to run the 400m. After 350m, once lactic acid builds up in your muscles, it is agonizing to run," says N Ramesh, a former coach of the Indian 400m programme who now coaches the 100m runner Dutee Chand.
None of this seemed applicable for Hima. In what was her first-ever 400m race, she held the lead right from the start and finished a second ahead of her rivals, including Olympian and former Asian Games gold medallist MR Poovamma. "It wasn't that difficult for me. I was able to run it without a problem," she would say after the race ended.
Having qualified for the Commonwealth Games, few predictions can be made about just where Hima's career will go. The ones that have been made have all proved to be embarrassingly overrun by her prodigious achievements. "The national camp she was picked for was the Asian Games camp. No one really expected her to qualify for the Commonwealth Games," says coach Das.
Even Hima underestimates herself. "Before the Federation Cup, I thought I would run 52.40 seconds. I wasn't expecting to run under 52 seconds," she says.
Hima's time is currently the sixth fastest amongst Commonwealth athletes this year. An individual medal is a difficult prospect. At least for most athletes. Those who know the girl aren't so sure. Her coaches credit this to her mental toughness. "Her biggest strength is that she simply doesn't worry about what's happening in the other lanes. People ask her, 'Aren't you worried if the person next to you is a national champion?' The fact is she doesn't even know who the national champion or world champion is because she has just been competing at any level for a year," says Malakar.
Indeed, neither Malakar nor Das wants to limit his predictions for her. "I've stopped making predictions for her," says coach Das. "I never expected her to go from a village to the Commonwealth Games in less than two years. When she told me about her preparations for the Federation Cup, I said she must try to run faster and she replied that she will run in 49 seconds very soon. She has no worries about how hard that is. She simply believes in herself that she can. And then she does it."