Swapna Barman has a sip of her tea and almost spits it out. “Dhat! Meetha nahi hai.” It’s not sweet. She goes on to empty two whole packets of sugar into her cup. “Ab theek hai.” Much better now. During this chat at a hotel in Mumbai, she also talks about her love for chocolates – “I like Alpenliebe…and Kit Kat” – and, like any Bengali woman, rosogolla.”

The 21-year-old has a sweet tooth the size of West Bengal. Probably bigger. It has cost her at least three of her regular teeth, on her coach Subhash Sarkar’s count. Last month, it almost cost her participation at the Asian Games.

The photo of Barman running on the athletics track in Jakarta with the Indian flag draped on her shoulders and her swollen right jaw covered with pink tape has almost become iconic. Barman won the women’s heptathlon, becoming the first Indian woman to clinch Asiad gold in the event that includes seven track and field disciplines.

However, her journey to the top of the podium was not pain-free. An abscessed molar had left her in considerable pain during the event, which is spread over three days. When Barman was warming up for the 100m race, which is the first event of the heptathlon, her tooth was moving and paining a lot.

After consulting her physiotherapist, she decided to put therapeutic tape around her jaw tightly. The tape helped restrict movement of her tooth, but it was still far from comfortable. “It felt as if my head was so heavy,” Barman said. “Not just my tooth, but my head, eyes, ears, everything was hurting.”

Imagine running 100m, 200m and 800m races, throwing a javelin, throwing a shot put and jumping – horizontally and vertically – as high and long as possible with the throbbing pain of a toothache. Her pet event, the high jump, was the toughest for Barman, as she had to tilt her head towards her shoulder while clearing the bar and then tuck it into her chest while landing, which hurt the most.

Swapna Barman's pet event – the high jump – was the toughest for her during the Asian Games (Image: Reuters)

The pain was not restricted to the competition. The nights were arguably worse. Instead of the deep sleep that athletes require prior to competing, Barman found herself being woken up by the excruciating pain.

“I got up so many times to go to the bathroom and put hot water in my mouth,” she said. “The pain used to subside for 30 seconds and then start again. I tried hot water, cold water, salted water…I applied toothpaste in the area, it didn’t work. Then I crushed painkiller tablets into a powder and applied it... didn’t work either. It sounds funny now, but it was very painful. I survived on water and daal those three days.”

A toothache was not Barman’s only injury concern during and before the Asian Games. A month before the event, she wasn’t even sure whether she would be fit enough to make it to Jakarta as she was carrying injuries in her back, knee and ankle. Of these, the knee was the worst, as she had a grade 3 tear, which is characterised by considerable pain and tenderness on the inside of the knee, along with swelling and joint instability.

“Thankfully, the doctor told me that my knee will not lock if I compete, but it will be very painful. I said, ‘As long as it does not lock, it’s fine. I will manage the pain.’” While Barman was determined and head-strong, others around her at the national camp in Patiala weren’t so optimistic. “People looked at me differently,” she said. “They doubted me. They said, ‘You won’t be able to walk. How will you compete? Why are you going?’ I cried a lot during those days.”

Add to this the now well-known fact that Barman has six toes on each of her two feet, which made wearing regular shoes an extremely uncomfortable and painful exercise, and made people think that she had no business winning an Asian Games gold medal. But she did. And it has changed her life.

“Those who used to bad-mouth me and doubt me now talk to me sweetly,” she said. “I never thought the prime minister would tweet about me. So many people, the media, want to help me now. But when I needed help, nobody came forward, except GoSports.”

Barman has been supported by the non-profit foundation since 2014 and they have been helping her manage the injuries and pain, while trying to find a way to get customised shoes made for her.

In fact, her initiation in GoSports also needed some help from unlikely quarters. She had applied for their athlete mentorship programme and was selected, with some help from actor and former rugby player Rahul Bose.

Back then, Barman could not speak Hindi or English, so it was Bose, a member of the selection panel, who translated whatever she said in Bengali during the interview. “I didn’t have a phone at the time. Everyone else was taking pictures but Rahul Bose came and took a photo with me. I won’t forget that ever,” she said.

While it was Bose who helped her in 2014, it was the persuasion of fellow athletes in the hilly district of Jalpaiguri that forced her coach Sarkar to reconsider training her after initially rejecting her due to her body type.

Sarkar is a coach at the Sports Authority of India’s Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Salt Lake City, Kolkata, and was visiting home during Durga Pooja in 2011 when some of his students told him about a young girl, the daughter of a rickshaw puller and tea picker, who was very good in high jump.

Swapna Barman is the daughter of a rickshaw puller and a tea picker (Image: IANS)

“She was around 12, quite small in height but heavy… huge thighs. I thought high jump is not suitable for her,” Sarkar said. Six months later, when Sarkar visited Jalpaiguri again, his students insisted that he take her on board. She had just won a medal at the Under-14 school Nationals in high jump.

“I thought, okay, she won a medal so she must be having some quality. Let’s try. In 2012, I got her admitted to the SAI hostel [in Kolkata]. Within a year and a half, she cleared 1.53m, then 1.57m, then 1.61m, 1.63m, 1.67m, 1.71m.”

During that period, Sarkar also tried a number of things to increase Barman’s height, which at the time was just over five feet. “I tried everything – physical, medicinal. Whatever ads I saw – eat this, eat that – I tried it all. I knew they were all false, but even if her height increased by 1 cm I would have been happy.”

Sarkar even got Barman to hold a bar with her hands while two other people were made to pull her legs. When that did not work, he got two more people to pull her hands along with those pulling her legs. This happened twice a day – in the morning and evening. “When she came to me, her height was 153 cms. Now, it is 161 cm. It is not a huge development, but anyway,” Sarkar said.

Despite being made a guinea pig by her coach, Barman did not have any complaints. “Jo chal raha tha, chalne dijiye (Whatever was happening, let it happen),” is how she saw it.

It was then that Sarkar decided to move her to the heptathlon. “I realised that if she wanted to get a medal in high jump at Asian Games level, with her height it would be a huge challenge,” he said. “I observed she had very good power. I tried her out in long jump, she did well. I tried her out for shot-put, she recorded 9 metre-plus. I tried her out for javelin, she had a very good throwing sense. She recorded 26m the first time.”

“27m,” said Barman, butting in.

“Yes, 27m,” said Sarkar. “Then 33m, 37m, 39m, 40m. Within a year, she became very good. In 2013, I sent her for a youth heptathlon competition in Guntur. She recorded a score of 4,435 and won silver. That was the start of her heptathlon career. The very next year, in 2014, she qualified for the Asian Games.”

Barman, just 17 years old at the time, was the youngest competitor in the women’s heptathlon at Incheon 2014. She came fifth, with a score of 5,178, and she did it with just two pairs of shoes that were not wide enough for her six-toe feet. Heptathletes usually need at least four pairs of shoes across the seven disciplines.

Four years later, Barman won the women’s heptathlon in Jakarta with a score of 6,026, again with ill-fitting shoes. Today, she has several offers from shoe companies and others to get her customised shoes.

It’s not just the shoe companies who are making a beeline for Barman now. “After watching her victory, the same doctors who charged money for her treatment earlier are now offering their service for free,” Sarkar said, laughing.

Barman and Sarkar are in Mumbai to consult with knee-specialist doctors regarding her meniscus tear. They are considering the option of surgery, which would put her out of action for a few months but that’s a risk Sarkar is willing to take.

“In 2019, there isn’t any targeted competition, apart from the Asian Championship in Doha [in April]. If she fails or misses that, it’s all right. If she is not ready and needs treatment, we will go for it. We will try to get her to compete in one competition before the world championship next year so that she can qualify but our main focus is the 2020 Olympics.”

Sarkar is even looking beyond Tokyo. He has his eyes on Hangzhou, which will host the 2022 Asian Games. “I want her to win gold in two successive Asian Games,” he said. “No one has done it in India. But before that, we need to get her fit.”