Three days before the Asian Games, the tooth began to hurt. It started off rather innocuously, then the doctors associated with the Organising Committee were consulted.
Due to the lack of time, it was decided that the tooth wouldn’t be removed. Instead, antibiotics would be administered rather than an injection. By the start of the Heptathlon competition, the tooth had begun to vigorously shake and the inflammation had caused the jaw to swell to two-three times its actual size.
For Swapna Barman, this was a mishap. Four years ago in Incheon, she had finished fifth as a 17-year-old. Now on the comeback trail, her competition had been derailed before it even began.
With seven gruelling events to follow in two days, Barman was facing the biggest test of her life. Fighting through the pain, she came away with the biggest medal of her career.
Since Soma Biswas and JJ Shobha had won a silver and bronze each in 2002, India had won a total of five medals in heptathlon, none of them gold. Barman and Purnima Hembram were attempting to break the jinx.
Barman had faced an additional challenge as she was born with 12 toes which makes it near impossible for her to wear standard competition footwear. “I have been having this pain ever since I started competing. I make do with normal five-toed shoes but it makes me severely uncomfortable,” says Barman.
Her coach, Subhash Sarkar says that they had tried to source shoes from local manufacturers but were disappointed with the quality and that they had got the make wrong. He also says that they have approached those who make customised shoes for para-athletes but it ‘didn’t work out’.
Her manager, Sharba Tasneem also mentions that international brands have been approached and they have declined her request, “For her to reach her full potential she requires what most elite athletes around the world receive – customised equipment. We have approached all major leading brands so they can make customised shoes for her however our requests have fallen on deaf ears so far. We hope that her performance at the Asian Games will catch their attention.”
The jumps are especially tough, says Swapna. “When I go for the take-off for the high or long jump, I feel the pinch and it can upset my rhythm. I have a pair of shoes from Nike, Asics and Adidas but they’re not made for my feet. I am certain that a customised pair will help me improve.”
Rewind to the 2017 World Athletics Championships. Swapna was a wreck in London, finishing 27th, almost 500 points down on her personal best of 5942 that she had set to win the Asian Athletics Championships in Bhubaneswar a month earlier.
Sarkar says the ‘childish’ Barman needs guidance and that he wasn’t there at the Worlds. “She is still a child and very immature at times. Her confidence can be affected easily, if she isn’t doing well, because she is very temperamental. Once she does an event badly, it can affect the others as well.”
Prior to the Asiad, Swapna had mentioned that she had stopped practising her favourite event, the High Jump altogether in order to concentrate on the other events. Sarkar corroborated that, stating that they had worked a lot on the throws (Javelin and Shot Put).
Remarkably, Swapna pulled off three personal bests in the competition – the Shot Put, the Long Jump and the Javelin Throw. At the end of four events last night, coach and athlete had seen that she had fallen behind due to Wang Qingling’s prowess in the sprints. Swapna had pulled clear in the High Jump, a 1.82 metres the top mark but the 100 metres hurdles and the 200 had pegged her back.
Qingling’s 32 point-lead had been stretched to 155 points at the end of the Long Jump, Swapna second-highest in the field at 6.05 to the Chinese’s 6.44. The Javelin swung the event back in the Jalpaiguri-born athlete’s favour.
A 50.93-metre throw topped the field and put daylight between her and Qingling, who managed a 39.33. Sarkar said that both were relaxed for the 800, despite it being a significant weakness for Swapna.
“Her best is 2 minutes and 16 seconds. The Chinese’s was 2.20-odd. I knew that we had this in the bag,” he said later. He was right, Swapna would become the first Indian woman to win the gold, accumulating 6026 points.
Fighting through pain, returning from an injury, Barman dug in to become the best heptathlete in Asia. The likes of Nafissatou Thiam and Katarina Johnson-Thomson might be in their own class for now, but Swapna’s stature ahead of next year’s World Championships continues to grow. JJ Shobha’s national record of 6211 points should fall soon.