Weak link Vismaya anchors India to relay gold


If the Indian women's relay team is a chain, there's little doubt that 21-year-old Vismaya Velluva Koroth is the weakest link. And on Thursday, she had to withstand the sledgehammer charge of the one of the greatest runners in Asia, who was trying to break India's longest running athletics streak at the Asian Games - four-time champions in the 4x400m relay.

This athletic mismatch would take place in the most critical segment of the race - the anchor leg. No matter how the race has been run until then, the last lap is decisive. Contests can be turned around, razor-thin leads stretched by the strongest runner in the squad. The last runner is a final show of cards and very logically, that's where Bahrain would play their trump.

They had positioned her royal swiftness Salwa Eid Naser, the Asian queen of the single lap, to run the final turn of the race. Naser sprints the 400m in 49-odd seconds (her best is 49.08s) like it's nothing. She has run the five fastest races by an Asian this year without breaking a sweat. She is a silver-medalist at the World Championships and expected to win it in the not so distant future. On Sunday, she had even blown past the best Indian runner at that distance - Hima Das - to win the 400m gold with a Games record.

Standing alongside Naser is a skinny 21-year-old from Kannur, Kerala, who has never won anything at international level. Heck, this final is her international debut. She glances across at her rival and her heart pounds.

"My heart was going dhad dhad dhad. She (Naser) is one of the best runners in the world. I'm running my first international race and it's the final of the relay," Vismaya says later.

Prior to the race, Vismaya would have been almost impossible to google. In contrast to the riches of Naser in the single lap, Vismaya has a lone silver medal at the National Inter-Universities in the same event. That's it. Nothing else. Nada.

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That's not unexpected because Vismaya wasn't interested in an athletics career until she was in class 11. The daughter of a construction labourer, education has been the priority for most of her life. She considers herself a student first, with A+ in her class 12 and another perfect grade in her BSc Mathematics degree. She has only run inter-school and junior national championships. She only ran the inter universities because it was mandatory for her college.

That medal got her a place in the national camp. Vismaya says she is acutely aware of her inadequacies.

"I'm not as good as the other runners. Poovamma didi has so much experience, Hima has won so many medals and runs so fast. I'm nothing like that," she says.

But Galina Bukharina, the mercurial ex-Soviet runner, ex-US college coach, who is now working with the Indian team, sees potential in her.

"She was a wonderful girl but so weak. But she runs beautifully. She runs so smoothly, That is natural," says Bukharina.

Vismaya soon travelled with the team to the Czech Republic where the other members tried to make her feel at home, even though she was shy and stayed to herself. Vismaya managed a personal best of 54.21 seconds, but it still wasn't nearly as good as her teammates' timings.

Vismaya is only in Jakarta because of Bukharina, who backed her even when she clocked a disappointing 53.30 seconds at the Inter-State Athletics Championships that were meant to serve as qualifiers for the Asian Games.

Many questioned her inclusion. A couple of athletes even went to court. Ahead of the relay, no one really seemed to believe Vismaya would be included in the high-pressure race ahead of someone like Nirmala Sheoran, who ran the final of the women's 400m.

"The selection committee asked me if I was sure that I wanted to take her. I said I insist that Vismaya will come to the Asian Games," says a beaming Bukharina. It was also Bukharina who insisted Vismaya run the relay anchor. "Hima wanted to run the anchor. But I said no. Vismaya will run."

It was a risky gamble. A day before the race, Vismaya says she asked her family to pray for her. In a straight race with Naser, that's about all the chance she had.

But there was bit of deception that Bukharina had planned. She made India's best runner Hima run the opening lap, and its most experienced runner MR Poovamma run the second, against two of Bahrain's weaker runners. By the time Poovamma handed over her baton to Saritaben Gayakwad, India had a sizeable lead. It extended to about 50 yards by the time Vismaya tapped in.

If there's anyone who can chase down a fifty-metre gap, it is Naser. But Vismaya didn't give her the chance. And her team-mates did their best to spur her on.

"I could see that she was nervous. I just yelled at her in Malayalam. Race yedithu wodu (Take the race and run)," says Poovamma later.

It was a near perfect performance. Vismaya clocked her split in 52.30 seconds, nearly a second faster than her previous personal best. Naser did her best, but the lead remained intact.

"I just wanted to make sure that I didn't let the team down," Vismaya says. "So I just ran my hardest until I got to the finish line."

She crossed the chalk and collapsed along with her teammates on the track. India's weakest link had withstood Bahrain's best efforts, and kept her country's legacy intact. While the whole crowd held their breathe at the David vs. Goliath contest, just one individual, coach Bukharina, was unperturbed.

"Before the race I told Vismaya, today you have the chance to show India just what a good 400m runner you are. You have to go do it."

And she did.