Updated: June 7, 2020 2:45:03 pm
In a span of three weeks, Hima Das won five gold medals across a slew of events labelled by World Athletics as ‘E’ class and ‘F’ class. These are the lowest-rung events among meets approved by the world governing body of track and field. The quality of the competition in those races, and the timings put up by Hima, were all forgotten as the people of the country, hungry for a bit of chest-thumping, went to town over these races – that were termed as warm-up runs by Hima herself – and made it into a major social media trend.
However, when it comes to Hima’s feats on the track, this wasn’t the first time she had made people sit up and take notice. The first time being the historic 400m gold medal she won at the 2018 U20 World Championships at Tampere, Finland.
Hima sprinted to fame when she became the first Indian to win a track medal at a global event – the event being no less than the junior World Championships. The runner from Dhing, Assam, went on to become an overnight sensation.
The terms ‘overnight sensation’ makes sense in Hima’s story. A mere one-and-a-half years after she started running, there was that five-foot-six frame crouching at the start line in Tampere.
The then 18-year-old, having already run in the semi-finals, was aware of the timings her competitors were putting up and felt confident that a medal was hers to lose.
“After the semi-final heats, I was sure I was going to win a medal here. Whether it would be gold or not, I didn’t know. (National camp coach) Basant (Singh) sir had come with me to the race. And before the start, I handed him the national flag and a gamusa (traditional Assamese cloth) and told him to give it to me at the finish line, no matter what,” Hima told The Indian Express.
After her victory as her interview was being taken, Hima was seen wearing the gamusa. She always carried one around and was only too glad to wrap the white piece of cloth with red borders along her neck after making history with a timing of 51.46 seconds for the country’s first-ever track gold medal at the world level.
The bend of an athletics track, especially in the 400m sprint, provide for some interesting storylines. One of which was that Hima was running way behind and overcame three competitors ahead of her to win the gold.
This narrative that was created that day is one Hima wishes to erase. “It’s a common misconception that I was behind at the 200m and 300m mark. There was a little difference but not that much. When I was at the 300m mark, the one thing I realised was that I had the power to go faster,” she said. While Hima wasn’t as behind as everyone, according to her, believed – she was close enough to give it a strong push at the end and ensure that she was the first across the finish line.
And yet, for the Assamese runner, the U20 World Championships was meant to be a practice event. The real target was something else.
“The target was actually the Asian Games. The U20 World Championship was only supposed to be for practice. After the trials in Guwahati for the Asian Games, I was sent to the Czech Republic for training. It was at that time that the federation said that they have entered my name for the junior world championships.”
The suddenness with which her name was sent for a U20 World Championship meant that for Hima, this wasn’t a ‘big occasion’. It’s a point she continuously stresses as the conversation about that day goes along. But the occasion definitely took on some significance 10 minutes after her victory. Just a few tweets and the congratulatory messages started pouring in.
“It didn’t feel like a big occasion to me. Then the President and the Prime Minister tweeted about my victory. That was when I realised the importance of what I had achieved,” she said.
After the race, Hima switched off her hotel room’s phone, her own phone and fell asleep. Once she woke up and opened her Facebook page, all she could see was people sharing her photos. She then went to her Twitter account where everyone from Sachin Tendulkar to Amitabh Bachchan had tweeted about her win.
While the significance of what she had done struck only after the deluge of ‘bade log’ (big people) congratulating her on Twitter, it’s very likely that the true significance of Hima being India’s first track medallist at a World Championship event was lost on a lot of people.
It was quite late in the evening in India when her race took place, and her parents had gone to sleep after her victory. Despite her insistence that winning a medal at the U20 Championships would be a commendable achievement, Hima’s folks weren’t too over-the-top in their celebrations. According to them, she won medals all the time, so this wasn’t that big a deal.
“I told them, ‘Maine duniya ko tod diya aura aap log sone jaa rahey ho. Kal subah malum padega aapko’, (I beat the whole world and you are going to sleep. You will realise the significance in the morning)”. Then I called my parents in the morning but they dismissed the medal again, saying that winning medals for me was normal,” said Hima.
But what happened the next morning changed the way even Hima’s parents saw that win.
“On a normal day, my father likes to go to the fields and get some vegetables. He likes to send the car ahead and follow it on the bike. When he was returning from the field the next morning, there was a three-and-a-half kilometre traffic jam till my house. Media, politicians, all were there to congratulate them. That was when they realised what I had been saying,” added Hima.