By Y B Sarangi
The historic gold that India’s Hima Das won at the World U20 Championships has captured the nation’s imagination.
Coaches say the 18-year-old quartermiler has the potential to be a breakout star, but she will need support and careful handling.
No device can measure the impact created by Hima Das in Tampere, Finland. Considering the buzz the historic gold medal generated in the news and social media, one can safely assume that Hima caught the nation’s imagination when she became the first Indian to win a track event at an elite world competition.
For a country starved of success at the top level, Hima’s shining 400m gold at the World U20 Championships has provided a ray of hope.
Indeed, her rise, which has attracted sceptical scrutiny, is nothing short of magical. Spotted last January, the girl from the remote Kandhulimari village near Dhing town in Assam has made light of the hardships of staying alone in Guwahati to break one barrier after another. She has improved her times in fast-forward mode, first at national and international youth meets and then at the elite competitions.
She went from 25.05 in the 200m at the Asian youth meet in Bangkok last June to becoming the national inter-state champion a year later, beating the established Dutee Chand with a time of 23.10. She also improved her 400m performance of 55.57 (September, 2017) to 51.13 last month when she won the national inter-state crown, deflating the challenge of a seasoned Nirmala Sheoran.
Having already entered Assamese folklore, Hima’s legend acquired global recognition in Tampere: the 18-year-old is only the second Indian world champion, after javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, at the under-20 level. The final race where she clocked 51.46, preceded by 52.25 in the heats and 52.10 in the semifinals, united a nation that has appeared increasingly divided in recent times.
Now the whole country wants to see Hima graduate to the next level with similar effectiveness.
Does Hima have it in her to do what jumper Anju Bobby George did at the 2003 World Championships and medal at an elite meet? Not even India’s greatest track athletes — Milkha Singh and P.T. Usha — have managed this, falling heartbreakingly short at the 1960 Rome and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics respectively.
“Hima is very talented. We have to be patient working with her and not expect overnight results,” says Galina Bukharina, India’s foreign coach for the 400m.
Dig further and you get a clearer picture of Hima’s potential. “Her future is 400m. She is not a sprinter-type and never will be. We have to develop her strengths —natural endurance and a strong finish,” says Galina, providing the rationale for why the youngster, who shone in the 200m in the National Open last September, made the National camp in November as a 400m trainee.
It also puts into perspective Hima’s rapid progress in the 400m, including her performance of 51.32 for a creditable sixth-place finish at the Commonwealth Games. She is now tipped to better Manjit Kaur’s 14-year-old National record of 51.05.
Sprint queen Usha has spoken highly of Hima and expects her to make it big. Can Hima be the next Usha (who also excelled at the 400m hurdles and owns the National record of 55.42 clocked at the Los Angeles Games)?
“No, she cannot be a hurdler,” says Galina. “Coordination is not her strong side, and we will waste her time teaching her to hurdle. In practice, we use hurdle drills twice a week as a tool to develop flexibility and she doesn’t look good at it.
“India is so big we just have to find new gifted athletes who will love to run hurdles and try to succeed in that event. We need more young talent. I am sure that the Hima example will help us find them,” says Galina.
By now, Hima, the new poster girl of Indian athletics, must have inspired many greenhorns with her fearless attitude. In her home town, she is an activist against infiltration from across the border and illegal liquor. Perhaps, the DNA of a rebel spurs her on the track too. “I don’t fear anything,” says Hima.
Two coaches who have groomed her acknowledge this.
“Hima does not see who is running alongside her. She does not run for a medal, she only focuses on improving her time,” says Nipon Das, who mentored the teenager before she broke onto the National scene.
Basant Singh, another coach in the National camp, compares Hima with a young Sachin Tendulkar. “I have never seen such a brave girl. I have seen many athletes whose attitude changes quickly after getting success. Hima is not like them,” notes Basant.
“I am a low-key girl from a middle-class family of a small village. I am not a star,” says a down-to-earth Hima.
Her confidence and grit may help on the track, but that doesn’t mean she should be loaded beyond her physical capacity.
Galina says Hima is ‘dead tired’ after doing thousands of air miles (from her training base in Poland to Guwahati for the Asian Games trials, from Guwahati to Finland, and from Finland to the Czech Republic for the Asiad training). She needs a break.
“That is the reason she ran 51.13 at the National inter-state and 51.46 in Tampere. What she needs now is rest, rest and rest. Not any load until I see that she is completely recovered. We all have to remember that the mind doesn’t have limits but the body does. And I do not know when we will be able to start our preparation for the Asian Games.”
It’s vital that Hima, who will compete in the 200m, 400m and 4x400m women’s and mixed relays at the Asian Games in Jakarta, is looked after. A long-term perspective is essential to prevent burnout. “She is capable of competing at the top level, but not tomorrow,” says Galina. “It will take a few years to become a real star.”