Agony and Ecstasy: Swapna Barman beats pain and severe illness to win gold, again

In 2018, Swapna Barman became the first Indian woman to win gold in the heptathlon at the Asian Games. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue

Swapna Barman collapsed in agony right after she completed the 800m - the last event of the women's heptathlon. She spent the next half a minute groaning, completely exhausted with the effort she had put into the race before eventually picking herself off the track.

Barman had done just about enough to win gold in the women's heptathlon at the Federation Cup event in Kozhikode with a total of 5800 points but even she'd have to wonder about the cost of doing so.

The last couple of days have been entirely miserable for Barman. The 25-year old came into the Federation Cup going through a torrid spell of food poisoning. She spent the first day of her competition alternatively throwing up and running to the toilets at the CH Muhammad Koya Stadium and somehow still finding the time to complete her first three events of the competition. "In the high jump event, I would make a jump then rush to the toilet. I'd make another jump and then I'd be vomiting. I must have made three runs to the bathroom and puked at least seven times in just that event," Barman said.

The food poisoning is perhaps only the least of the discomfort for Barman who became the first woman to win a heptathlon gold for India at the 2018 Asian Games. Competing had always been a painful experience for Barman due to the fact that with an extra toe on each foot, every shoe would be unbearably tight. And she has been battling a series of injuries. A grade 3 meniscus tear to her knee during the Asian Games has been compounded by a deterioration of the cartilage between her spinal discs. "Every time I arch my back when I do the high jump, the pain is terrible," she says with a shudder.

The steadily building up injuries have taken their toll on the 26-year-old. After the high point of the Asian Games, she's taken part in just a single international competition - the Asian Championships in 2019. Appearances even in domestic competition would slow to a trickle due to injuries and challenges of finding a training ground in Jalpaiguri. She took part in a couple of competitions in 2021 in a last ditch attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics but admits she never really had much of a chance.

In between all of her troubles on the track, Barman had been dealing with her share of crisis off it. She'd been accused of illegal possession of timber and not always received the awards that had been promised to her after her victories at the Asian Games. "I've dealt with so much politics. So many promises were made and ultimately they were just that."

Eventually it got too much. After competing through intense pain at the Open national championships in Warangal in September last year, Barman thought she had had enough. "My body is not taking the toll anymore. Mentally, I'm very depressed and it's not easy. I'm a bit confused, but I've mentally prepared 80-90 per cent to call it quits," she had been quoted as saying.

But even as Barman toyed with thoughts of giving it all up, the last bit of fortitude forced her to stay in the race for just another lap. "I know I wanted to quit last year. But I felt I wanted to prove a point. A lot of people have been saying that I was finished as an athlete after the Asian Games. I know that I have to quit eventually. But rather than quit on a negative feeling, I felt let me quit on a high note," she says.

That high note, she hopes will come in this year's Asian Games. "It will be good if I can finish over there," she says.

Barman knows she's running against the clock. Her worn down body is just about holding together. The customised extra wide competition shoes that she was provided by Adidas in 2018 and which allowed her to compete pain free for the first time in her life are also fraying. "I hope they will last until the Asian and Commonwealth Games," she says.

Until then, she will push her body to the limit. "Because of my back injury, I have to take an injection for my spine every few months. And because of the pain, I have to take painkillers every time I compete," she says. That pain compounded by her food poisoning episode in Kozhikode meant that she was a long way off her best of 6026 points. "I probably could have done a lot more. I have a personal best of 1.87m in the high jump but I couldn't come near it because I was having lose motions and vomiting on the field. But I will get better. I will try to do even better at the Inter State championships and then at the Commonwealth and Asian Games. I will have a strong finish."