Wonder woman Swapna Barman overcomes pain barrier

How much pain is too much? At what point do you tap out of the fight? Never, if you are Swapna Barman.

A short while after she arrived in Jakarta for the Asian Games, another part of Swapna's body quit on her. Ever since she has been old enough to walk, pain has been the 21-year-old's constant companion.

Swapna runs in pain due to the fact that she was born with six toes, and no shoes really fit her. She has dealt with injuries to her knee, her ankle and even her fingers. There is a disc bulge in her back that causes her to gasp every time she flexes her spine. Her right hamstring has been clutching ever so often over the past couple of months. And now there was more pain - an excruciating toothache caused by an abscessed molar. So even her jaw was taped up.

For someone who sings to relax, this was particularly unkind. "Forget singing, I couldn't even open my mouth to smile," says Swapna.

Just a couple of days ago, the pain was so intense that Swapna even fleetingly considered the possibility that she might be forced to quit the event. She cried because it hurt so much. But then she blinked back the tears and wiped away the self doubt.

"It's nothing. I will go ahead and compete," she told a concerned physio. Indeed, she buckled down and got on with it. She had come too far to give up so close to her dream.

The jaw was still bandaged with pink tape, but Swapna was flashing a million dollar grin on Wednesday evening. Just as well, considering she had confirmed victory in the women's heptathlon event.

The 21-year-old from Jalpaiguri became the first Indian to win the women's all-round event at the Asian Games, a feat that traditionally would mark her the best woman athlete of the tournament. Going into the final event of the heptathlon - the 800m, Swapna had a 50-point lead and she only increased it further, as her total of 6012 points kept her 72 points clear of the chasing pack.

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Athletics wasn't the number one priority for a young Swapna. "I was more into kabaddi and football," she says. It was her father Panchanan, a rickshaw puller in the tea estates of Assam, who decided she should turn to athletics.

"He had heard somewhere that if you are a runner and take part in some competitions you could get a job," she says. And so Swapna, as a 11-year-old, would train at a stadium eight kilometers from her home. "My father would take me on his rickshaw so I didn't need to walk."

She was first spotted as a high jumper by a student of a Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach at a regional schools meet. The coach Subhash Sarkar then saw her compete and she was inducted into the SAI Kolkata hostel in 2013. He didn't have high hopes from her at first.

"She was the wrong shape to be an athlete. Her legs were too small and her thighs were too big. She looked like a circle. I thought here's one more athlete who's going to eat free food," recalls Sarkar. But there was one thing about the little girl that stood out for him. "She was determined and she had a mental toughness that poor kids have. You can't teach that."

Sarkar advised her to shift from the high jump to the women's heptathlon, a decision that only promised further agony.

"Right from the time I was a kid, I've never been able to find a pair that fits me. Paanch ungli wala shoe kabhi nahi fit hua mujhe (The five-toe shoes never fit me). When I run in shoes it hurts. When I wear spikes it is even more painful," she says.

As such, competing in the heptathlon with its seven events - 100m, 200m, 800m, shot put, high jump, long jump and javelin throw - was not the easiest decision to make. Yet, it was one Swapna made under the advise of her coach. As expected, she picked up injuries training with faulty footwear, but Swapna persisted. In less than a year in the heptathlon, she became the youngest competitor in the heptathlon field at the 2014 Asian Games. Unlike other athletes who competed with five or six pairs of shoes for each event in the heptathlon, Barman carried two pairs that lasted throughout the Incheon games and finished fifth. She was only 17.

While she had made peace with her injured toes, it was her back that threatened her career more. In 2016, Swapna was diagnosed with a disc bulge on her back. Doctors said that her back was not flexible enough to take the stress she put it under. Still, Swapna continued to work.

After having appeared to work through that injury with a gold at the 2017 Asian Championships, it flared up again following the World Championships later that year. Signed on by the Go Sports Foundation in mid-2015, she now had physios and spine specialists working with her to manage those injuries, before further issues came up in her knee and hamstring in June this year.

There was no question of walking away from the Asian Games, though. "She's never complained once about having any injuries. She just says she is going to get better and works through it," says a physio who has worked with her.

Swapna drew additional motivation from the fact that her father suffered a stroke in 2013. It meant someone else - besides a brother who cuts wood - had to provide for the family, a responsibility Swapna decided to take up. "Main hu na (Don't worry, I am there)," she says.

But even that seemed doubtful when ONGC, with whom she was on stipend, appeared to cut their ties with her. Swapna had made her share of emotional toil as well. She stayed devoted to training and hasn't been home for a year.

"Before the race, my mom and dad were crying so much because I had not been home for so long," she says.

Having sacrificed so much, no amount of pain would have stopped her. "I had fever too because of the abscess. Just before the heptathlon. My jaw was swollen so much. It was so painful. But I had to go on."

The pain nearly got to her. Every time she landed after the high jump, she hit her swollen jaw. "Every time she ran, the movement hurt her. If it was any other athlete but her, she would have quit," says Sarkar. She was less than her best in her favourite event - the high jump. As against a personal best of 1.87m, she only jumped 1.82m.

But just when it seemed that pain had got the better of her, Swapna pushed back. She set personal records in the shot put and long jump to close the gap with China's Wang Qingling, who was in the lead. Her penultimate event, the women's javelin throw, wasn't one of her strong suits. Yet, despite the spear lodged against her taped jaw, Swapna would score another personal best to surge to the top of the table.

She wouldn't let the advantage slip in her final event - the 800m. It wasn't her best result in the race, but it was enough. Swapna had gritted it out and following her run, burst into a yell of elation, with no more consideration of any agony she was in.

It is a pain tolerance that only victory provides.