Swapna Barman fought tooth-and-twelve-nails to win India’s first-ever Asian Games gold medal in heptathlon on Wednesday.
Seven gruelling events over three days for a medal will always take extreme toll on an athlete’s body, more so for Swapna, who faces the perennial problem of having to run with ill-fitting shoes that always pinch the six toes on each of her feet. What the 21-year-old from Jalpaiguri was not prepared for at Jakarta was a tooth infection flaring up after a root canal treatment, leaving her with a pounding pain, which meant she had to stick a kinesio tape around her right jaw.
Heptathlon was not meant to be an octathlon — with tooth trouble thrown into the mix. She loves chocolates and rosogulla, but it’s a dentist’s chair that will be her first port of call after her sensational gold medal.
She loves to sing as well, and says she’d have been a singer if not an athlete. But even humming a song in these last three days seemed like agony. “Even smiling was a torment, forget singing,” she said, clutching her cheek but still laughing. “Everything hurts and has been injured — ankle, knee, back, fingers and now tooth,” she said, after winning the gold.
Competing with pain and a swollen, taped face, Swapna topped the field with 6026 points, winning shot put, javelin — which she enjoyed winning — and high jump.
“Actually, the jumps were the toughest, because of the take-offs. It would send shooting pain,” she said, though she kept at it, coming second in long jump. The 800m run was the last of her events on Wednesday evening, and she needed to parry off China’s Wang Qingling to protect her 63 point lead.
“I thought on the first day that I wouldn’t be able to compete at all. But then I had to — what would happen to all the hard work I had put in,” she said. The tooth infection led to a bout of fever overnight — as if seven challenges were not enough.
It was the 200m though that gave her the jitters. At the Doha meet, Swapna had careened into the next lane at the start of the 800m, and been chastised with a penalty. “I was scared it would happen in the 200m again. That was the fear,” she said.
Swapna played football and kabaddi during her school years in Jalpaiguri. Her father, a rickshaw-puller, suffered a stroke in 2013 and has been bed-ridden since then. Her mother worked as a tea picker on an estate.
Swapna started out as a high jumper, but was told that she was too short to carry on in the event. Picked for a SAI trial after two rejections in 2011 and 2012, she broadened her repertoire and focussed on sharpening disciplines she was already good at, even as the unique challenge with the added toes started to cut into her leg movements.
“It pains all the time, I’ve struggled to get shoes for my six toes all my life,” she said. It’s not just during competition, but even the training leaves her with traumatised feet. She has met a clutch of doctors and experts, been in rehab for ages, and sneaked in a gold medal at the Asiad in the middle of all these afflictions.
“It’s bad with shoes, it’s worse with spikes,” she said, adding that the gold medals also bring with them months of homesickness. “I haven’t been home for a year,” she said, adding that her family broke down and cried after she won the gold.
Swapna is now the only earning member of the family. Asked how her family has coped with financial difficulties, she said, “Main Hoon Na.”