Here comes Hima Das. The Indian can see the line. She can see history. India’s never won any medal in a track event. But Das has done it here!
The commentator was right. India had never won a medal in any track event at the global level, senior or junior. That is, until Hima Das showed up at the Ratina Stadium in Tampere. On Thursday, Das became the first Indian to win a track medal and when she did, it was gold.
Hima won the women’s 400-metre race with a time of 51.46 metres at the IAAF Under-20 World Championships. Even if her win did come in the juniors, it should be celebrated with as much gusto as her achievements at the Commonwealth Games.
Just look at the last Indian to win a gold medal at the U-20 Worlds. It was a certain Neeraj Chopra, now working his way up the senior circuit as the country’s premier javelin thrower.
From footballer to sprinter in less than 24 months
When seen in the context of her journey till this point, Das’s accomplishments in her five-month long career are even more special.
Till 2016, Das barely had a clue about athletics and had never run competitively till she took part in the Assam State Championships, where she ran 100 metres, coming second. Not bad for a first attempt, you’d think.
At the school nationals in February 2017, she won medals in both the 100m and the 200m, but there was still no sign of the 400m. A footballer playing for several local clubs in her youth, Hima’s focus in athletics intensified after coaches Nipun Das and Nabajit Malakar took loans to send her to the World Youth Championships, where she finished fifth.
That was in all probability what brought her to the attention of national sprint coach Galena Bukharina and her team from the Athletics Federation of India, who were responsible for conducting the camp. Initially selected as a probable for the relay, Das ran the 200m even at the Asian Games Test event in Jakarta early February.
Making a mark in crowded 400-metre field
The thinking in the sprint camp was that Hima was a 100m and 200m specialist who could be used in the 4x400m relay at the CWG due to the spate of withdrawals from the camp. Mind you, the women’s 400m section was already crowded when Hima took to the track at the Federation Cup.
There was MR Poovamma, India’s star quarter-miler for the longest time, and a former Asian Games medallist in the individual 400m. Nirmala Sheoran displaced Poovamma over the last couple of years, and clocked 51.28 seconds at the same meet last year. Jisna Mathew, training under PT Usha, was the next big thing, upsetting Poovamma at the Indian Grand Prix in 2017. Sonia Baishya, the 22-year-old, had come through the ranks, and was considered a certainty for the relay team.
At the National Sports Institute in Patiala, Hima took no prisoners in her first-ever 400m event. She won her heat comfortably, with a time of 53.13 seconds. Malakar, her coach was also surprised: “I didn’t know this girl could run 400 metres till a few months back.”
For the final, the AFI had set a stiff target of 52 seconds or lower to get into the CWG squad, a mark that had rarely been breached in recent years by an Indian quarter-miler. What followed was an unprecedented run from the Dhing Express, as she ran a 51.97-second race, sealing the Gold Coast berth.
Long way to go
At Gold Coast, the timings kept tumbling impressively. Reaching the final at her first multi-disciplinary meet was a high, but to finish fifth with a time of 51.32 seconds on foreign soil was a rarity for an Indian sprinter.
It was also the second-fastest time by an Indian since Manjeet Kaur set the national record of 51.05 seconds in 2004. At the Inter-State Championships in Guwahati, she was the local favourite and did not disappoint, with a new personal best of 51.13 seconds. This meant that she surpassed the likes of KM Beenamol, as only Kaur’s mark stood in front of her. When asked about the record, she said, “I have not thought about it, we will see.”
Her performance in Tampere now means that the 18-year-old has five sub-52 performances to her name in the four months since she started competing in this event. Kaur’s national record should be the last thing on her mind, as the world’s best sprinters all run within 50 seconds.
Like 100m and 200m, the 400m race is a power sport. But it also a tactical one like the 800m and 1,500m, something Hima showed in Tampere as she made the move in the last 100m.
With an improvement in technique, an increase in leg muscle power, there is considerable scope for further slashing of the timings. Next up is the Asian Games where her main competition will be Bahrain’s Salwa Eid Naser, who has run the five fastest times in Asia this year, with Hima clocking eight of the next nine fastest times in the continent.
The national record should be broken in Jakarta, but more importantly it will be interesting to see how she matches up to the 20-year-old Naser. The fact that we’re talking about an 18-year-old competing for the Asian Games gold in her fifth month of competition tells you how special the journey has been.