Editor’s note: This article was originally published in March before Hima Das’ impressive performance at the Commonwealth Games in April, 2018. On July 12 2018, she became India’s first track athlete to win a medal at the global stage: a gold medal at the U-20 Worlds women’s 400m event.
Neeraj Chopra was being cheered and applauded, on the second evening of the Federation Cup. The national record-holding javelin thrower was supposed to be the main attraction of the day, with little else expected to happen on a day of sprint finals.
The reason for the low expectations were the Athletics Federation of India’s lofty cut-offs for the Commonwealth Games; for many the bar was set higher than the national records. Soon, Muhammed Anas would take the track for the men’s 400 metres but would be unable to scale the heights expected of him, finishing well outside the CWG cut-off.
Then came the women’s 400 metres. A lot of top performers were missing from the starting line-up. Tintu Luka and Jisna Mathews, both star pupils of PT Usha, were absent as was Nirmala Sheoran, who the AFI have been unable to trace since the IAAF World Championships in London.
Stunning the field
MR Povamma, Asian Games gold medallist and Olympian, was supposed to be the main draw at the 400 metres and a clear favourite. Jauna Murmu, a long-time camper and Sonia Baishya, a 22-year-old rising talent were also closely watched.
As the gun went off, the youngest of the field, an 18-year-old from Assam started to take flight. She was relentless, a streak of blonde in her hair, as the rest of the sprinters fell off one by one. By the time she finished, she was drained but there had been enough for her to jump in delight.
Hima Das had put clear daylight between herself and the rest of the field. There was no photo-finish required, no close action cameras to decode the identity of the winner. As the electronic scoreboard switched from the on-field action to the timings, everyone present at the National Institute of Sports, Patiala gasped.
They had expected Hima to have clocked a time between 52 and 53 seconds. Later, the Assamese herself would say that she was happy because she had run in the 52-second range. As the scoreboard flashed 51.97, it dawned that the CWG cut-off was 52 seconds. Hima had qualified for the 400 metres in her first ever attempt at the distance in a national meet.
Timings keep tumbling
Das could very well have become a footballer if not for the intervention of coaches Nabajit Malakar and Nipun Das, who saw the potential in her. “I was a striker. However, I was not sure whether I could be really good at it. I played for a lot of local clubs and played at state level. Then sirs (Nabajit and Nipun) saw me and gave me a chance.”
The best part was that the 400 metres wasn’t Hima’s preferred event till a few months ago. Born to Ronjit Das, a former footballer and Jomali Das, the youngest of five siblings had broken through at the Assam State Championships, where she had secured bronze in the 100 metres, without any tactical or technical training.
Malakar, who watched on proudly at the NIS on Tuesday, says that he was surprised by her rapid strides, “This girl didn’t even know how to run a 400 metre race few months ago. They selected her for the 100 and the 200.”
The sprinter from Dhing village in Nagaon district then qualified for the finals of the junior nationals in Coimbatore, surprising everybody again. Nipun Das, at that point took a decision, “We brought her to Guwahati for training. A local doctor, Pratul Sharma, helped us arrange funds. We started training her and her timings started tumbling.”
February 2017 saw her win a bronze in the 100 and a silver in the 200 at the school nationals. The same set of medals followed at the youth nationals in Hyderabad. That ensured qualification for the Asian Youth Championships in Bangkok, as she slashed 0.33 seconds off her best time, clocking 24.52 seconds.
Making a mockery of predictions
“We took a loan for the World Youth Championships, but we knew it would be worth it, sending her there,” says Nipun Das. Remarkably, the sprinter who had a year of experience under her belt finished fifth in Nairobi, nearly medalling for India.
At the national camp, a string of withdrawals had ensured that Hima would be trained as a quarter-miler. Camp coach Galena Bukharina reckoned that Das was capable of shattering the 51-second mark in the future.
Originally drafted in as an addition to the 4 X 400 metre relay team, the decision to field her at the Fed Cup was a last-minute one. Even as late as last month, Hima had won an Asian Games test event in Jakarta, bagging gold in the 200 metres.
On Tuesday at her first meet, she took on all comers and vanquished them. “What can she achieve and how far can she go? Frankly, we’ve stopped predicting,” says coach Malakar. With Hima Das in full flight, the best one can do is sit back and watch as all bets are off.