Sweety Kumari loved her first spikes gifted by an athletics coach in Patna because she felt like she was flying on the cinder track, just skimming the ground. Moving to rugby thereafter, where she’s emerged as India’s explosive speedy wing, the 19-year-old loved watching defenders fly — and fall in vain around her, as her blitzing runs eluded their pursuing dives. Over the last few days, Sweety says she’s flying a little above ground, excited about being picked as the “international young player of the year” by reputed women’s rugby website Scrumqueens.
The year-end poll, a mix of 10 shortlisted nominations from across the world followed by a public poll, picked the Indian, who was earlier declared by Asia Rugby as the “continent’s fastest player”. Hailing from Nawada village in Barh tehsil of Patna, where she first ran the 100m dash in 11.58 seconds, Sweety channelled her pace into rugby, where she is nicknamed India’s “Scoring Machine” by teammates.
Earlier, playing in the XVs against Philippines, Sweety received the ball from the flyhalf’s kick, ran wide, stepped inside dodging a rival winger, shrugged off a second defender’s tackle, bisected two onrushing tacklers (who collided), and finally leapt over the tryline, with two more defenders left clutching her ankles. “Six tacklers against Philippines and four in the next match with Singapore, nobody could catch me,” she says. “They all try, they come from front and behind, and pull me. But nobody can match my speed,” she adds, on her runs that helped India score their first Fifteens Test win against Singapore.
“She impressed from the start, but it was this year that she started making a big impact in Asia, at both sevens and fifteens. Described by Asia Rugby as the continent’s fastest player, her explosive pace and power has resulted in her top scoring at most of India’s sevens tournaments, as well as scoring two outstanding tries in their first ever test match win against Singapore,” Scrumqueens wrote.
The fifth among seven children, Sweety followed an older brother into athletics, and ran sprints for her government school, district and state. “He’s left sport, he gave up because it was hard work. Now, my father keeps scolding my siblings to study and tells them ‘Sweety ki life toh set hai, usse kuchh seekho’,” she says.
A rugby coach pointed her towards what was an unfamiliar sport, but she picked the rules quickly. “Pass behind, run in front was all I understood initially at a junior pre-camp. Then American coach Mike Fryday taught me to run wide on the flanks and not get caught by defenders. I’m also very smart and use my mind effectively. The speed is a God gift, I only train hard on the rhythm of running and stepping in and out at full speed,” she says.
Her father worked as a handyman, and her mother was an anganwadi worker. “My father put me ahead of others and helped me in every way he could. I would tell coaches to lend me spikes, I would prove I deserved them by winning,” she says.
In rugby, her pace was evident and she quickly settled into the wings, playing as centre at times. “Now the South African coaches plan for me because teams have started putting three defenders on me because of my speed. Indonesia did that, so that’s the next challenge,” she says.
Meanwhile, Sweety has gained fame in her home state, as the government has elevated rugby to the level of cricket and hockey and started offering jobs to talented players. “When I walked in 10 minutes late for an exam once, the invigilator started talking to me about my game and others clapped. They let me write the exam with an easy let-off,” she adds.
She says she gets mobbed when she travels to rugby-crazy Pacific islands. “In Laos, they all pointed their shoulders to me, asking me to sign,” she recalls.
She has stopped watching films, and obsessively watches videos of American Sevens stars Perry Baker and Carlin Isles instead. “You won’t believe it, but sometimes I watch them run magically on ground, and dodge past defenders and I wonder, ‘woh humaare jaise hai, ya hum unke jaise khel rahe hai? (Are they running like me, or do I run like them?) Of course, my real challenge will be outside Asia,” says the 5-ft-4 winger.
She’s come a long way from Barh, but says she’s yet to taste non-vegetarian food outside of her home. “I love the mutton and chicken that my mother makes. But somehow, I can’t eat meat outside. I live on bread, milk, cornflakes and lots of fruits if I don’t get vegetarian food abroad,” she says. The talking point after her sensational try against Philippines, when she left six defenders in her wake, was about how she’d only eaten fruits for five days. “It won’t work always, but didn’t I run fast?” she asks. “Nobody could catch me.”