India's Hima Das made history by becoming the country's first track athlete to become a world champion at any level after winning the women's 400m at the U-20 World Championships in Tampere, Finland on Thursday. Hima is also only the second ever Indian athlete to claim a gold medal at the World Juniors, following javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra's victory at the 2016 edition of the championships.
Running in lane four at the Ratina Stadium, the 18-year-old who had begun learning the basics of sprinting just a couple of years ago, stormed to victory in 51.46 seconds, beating Romania's Andrea Miklos, who was a distant second at 52.07 seconds and USA's Taylor Manson, who clocked 52.28 seconds.
Hima had gone into the competition as the heavy favourite. She was the fastest in the field with a personal best of 51.13 seconds recorded at the Inter State Championships last month. Although she was the athlete to beat, she had shown no nerves. "What's there to be nervous about? I like running. I've told myself just one thing -'Go and have fun'," she had told ESPN before she left for the competition.
She had justified that confidence by beating her rivals in the heats and had qualified for the finals as the fastest athlete in the semi-finals on Wednesday. Despite her wins, her times in those two races were far short of her personal bests, something that worried Nipon Das, who had initiated her career in athletics.
What a display from HIMA DAS! ������
- IAAF (@iaaforg) 12 July 2018
She had calmed his concerns over a phone call. "She told me 'I'm taking it easy right now, I've saved my best for the final','" recalls Das.
Despite Hima's nonchalance, her coaches aren't missing the significance of her historic achievement. It wasn't as if her prodigious talent had been unnoticed. At the Commonwealth Games in April, Hima --who had only begun running the 400m a few months before -- had finished sixth in the final in a world class field - a remarkable achievement for someone competing in their first high-profile tournament. Yet the lack of a medal rankled - if not Das herself then at least her coaches.
"Hima will always say that she only wants to run faster than before but this was still an important race to win. Hima has competed many times before and although she has done well, she has not got a lot of recognition. She did so well at the Commonwealth Games but she did not get a medal so it was not the same thing," says Nipon Das.
The win in Tampere clearly marks Hima as the highest profile track athlete in the country. This would have been a scenario unthinkable a year and a half ago. Back in 2016, Hima, the youngest of five siblings of Jomali and Ronjit Das, a marginal rice farmer, had never considered a career in Athletics. Instead, she played football on a muddy field in her village school.
After a few months of training on the muddy turf, she would compete at the state championships in Guwahati where, competing alongside children who had trained for most of their lives, she won a bronze.
That victory was the breakthrough her career needed. She was then selected for the National Championships, where her incredible potential astounded coaches Nabajit Malakar and Nipon Das. The two coached her to the Asian Youth Championships, where she finished seventh and then the World Youth Championships, where she finished fifth in the 200m.
Das says he was disappointed after Hima had narrowly missed out on a medal. But he recalls how the athlete herself was not worried. "She was happy as if she had won a medal. She told me 'Right now I don't have that much experience. But wait and see what I can do,'" he recalls. "And now she has done it," he says.