Six toes on each feet meant competing with ill-fitting shoes and bearing excruciating pain. Short in stature and not gifted with natural speed, Swapna Barman is an antithesis of a heptathlete. To make matters worse, she suffered a tooth and gum infection during the Asian Games. Barman and her long-time coach Subhash Sarkar relive each of the seven events en route the 22-year-old winning the country’s maiden gold (6,026 points) in heptathlon in Jakarta.
Overall position: 4th; 13.98s; Personal Best (PB) 13.89s
Of the three events which involve running, the 100m hurdles, the first event of the seven in heptathlon, is the one Barman is best placed to gather points in. As she has six toes on each feet, the Bengal athlete has to run wearing ill-fitting shoes, which makes each step painful. Also, unlike most of her competitors, Barman is also not naturally gifted with speed. Her coach says she is able to overcome the limitation by improving her technique when it comes to clearing hurdles which, in turn, has helped her develop better running rhythm. In the other two running events, an athlete requires pure speed in the sprint (200m) and speed and endurance in the two-lap race (800m). “Sir gave me a small target, he just told me to do 14 flat. He advised me not to over-exert.”
Overall position: 1st, 1.82 metres; PB: 1.87m
Barman was a junior national record holder in the high jump before she shifted to heptathlon on the advice of her coach. “Usually, high jumpers are very tall. I am short (5’3”) and it is very difficult to clear the bar. But I can manage to clear heights which taller athletes struggle with. I don’t practise too much of the high jump because it aggravates my back pain in my L3 and L4 discs in the spine (which support the torso). Any event I do I can feel the back pain and also I have constant pain in my feet because I have to fit six toes into a shoe. But the high jump is my favourite event and it was only in 2013 that I shifted to heptathlon,” Barman says.
Coach Sarkar believes the back injury is a result of Barman going all out in the high jump. “If you look at high jumpers or heptathletes around the world, most of them are 175 centimetres or more in height. Swapna is comparatively much shorter and this means she has to go all out. She has great jumping power but the landing takes a toll on her back,” Sarkar says.
It was in 2013 that Sarkar asked Barman to shift to heptathlon. “I studied her ability in the high jump and concluded that she could improve to 1.90 metres maximum. But there was no guarantee of a medal at the Asian level. But in hepatathlon, if an athlete scored between 5,400 to 5,600 points at the Asian Games, it was good enough for a bronze medal. Moreover, she showed the inclination to overcome her limitations and give her best in all seven events,” Sarkar recalls.
Overall Position: 2nd, 12.69 metres; PB: 13.16m
The event is one of the tougher ones in heptathlon because an athlete has to throw 17.07 metres to score 1,000 points. The difficulty level can be gauged from the fact that London Olympics gold medallist and three-time World Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill has a personal best of 14.67 metres. The challenge for Barman was even greater during the Asian Games because she had a painful gum infection on her right side —she places the shot put against her chin and under her neck on this side. She competed with sports therapy bands plastered across her jaw and cheek. “I had a lot of pain because of my tooth problem. In practice, I was throwing over 13 metres. Shot put is a difficult event so I don’t practise too much,” Barman says.
The shot put is another event where the physical abnormality of her feet proves to be a hindrance. “The shoes which athletes usually wear for the shot put don’t fit my feet. So I wore warm-up shoes but had to be careful.”
When Sarkar first realised that his ward could not force her feet into a regular shot put shoe, he advised her to use the warm-up shoe to avoid further injury. “I wanted her to be comfortable. I didn’t want her to suffer injury because she already had issues with her back, knee and feet. By training in the shot put with practice shoes, she has got used to it and is now comfortable,” the coach says.
Sarkar is proud that his ward ignored the pain to participate in the shot put. “Her gums were septic and swollen three to four times its normal size. Whenever she moved or landed, it was vibrating and she was in tremendous pain. The pain from her jaw was extending all the way to her head.”
Overall Position: 2nd, 26.08 seconds; PB:25.80
This must rank as the toughest event for Barman because of a combination of poor bio-mechanics and lack of natural speed as well as physical characteristics which don’t give her an advantage in sprints. “She has extra muscle mass on her thighs. During her stride, there is an inward rotation of her legs and when she plants her foot, her ankle rotates outward. This also leads to ankle injuries. Moreover, the contact time of her foot and the track is much longer than other athletes because she has six toes. Every second lost in the 200 metres can cost an athlete 90 points. She does not have the body structure of an heptathlete, which enables them to be very fast on the track. Most of them are tall and have tremendous speed. Swapna has power but in the 200 metres strength is not a big advantage. On an average, athletes run the 200 in about 22 to 24 seconds but in her case it is 26. Hopefully, she will be able to cut down two seconds in her time,” Sarkar says.
Barman is also constantly worried about lane infringement when she runs the 200 metres, a fear which subconsciously holds her back. “At the Asian Indoors, I lost a medal because of lane infringement. When I run fast, I lose sight of where my lane is. So that is also a fear. I don’t have any special spikes and have to wear those that athletes with five toes use,” she says.
Overall Position: 2nd; 6.05metres; PB: 6.05M
“The long jump is also a painful event for me, especially when landing because of my back injury,” Barman says. As she has a knee injury and a bad back, the impact can be extremely painful, coach Sarkar says. “She has the ability to improve in the long jump provided she can improve her speed. I think she can touch 6.30 metres but we will have to tweak her technique a bit.”
Overall position: 1st, 50.63metres; PB 50.63M
Barman improved her personal best in the javelin throw by nearly 5 metres – up from 45.77 metres. “This event was on the second day, so after my shot put event on the first day, I practised the javelin throw a lot. Even the shoes athletes used for javelin didn’t fit my feet, so I used high jump spikes during the javelin throw,” Barman says.
This event is one for which the coach was ready to tweak her technique in the run-up to the Asian Games because he felt it would be easier than trying to change her bio-mechanic pattern in running. “She is a natural thrower but not technically sound. She achieved a personal best of 50.63 metres with only a half-approach. If she can throw using a full approach, she can do 55-plus,” Sarkar says. The coach’s take is that it takes an athlete up to two years to master a single event. “It would have been difficult for her to improve in the 200 metres with the Asian Games around the corner. Changing a running action needs six to eight months, and Swapna’s is one she has been using since childhood. So in order to gain points, I just asked her to change her throwing angle. It worked.”
Rank 4th, 2:21.13; PB: 2:16.10
The two-lap race is the final event in heptathlon and held on the second day after the long jump and javelin throw. Athletes also have to recover from the first day’s events (100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200 metres) and conserve enough energy to remain competitive in the lung-busting race. “The most difficult event for me is the 800 metres. I don’t like running anyway and on top of that, it is the last event and you need a lot of endurance. I would say both days of competition are tough. At the end of it, you have to run two laps! I had a 63-point lead over the Chinese athlete (Wang Qingling) going into the last event so I had to make sure I finished near her in the 800 metres. I did enough (she finished fourth and Wang fifth in their Heat) to pip her to the gold.”