Claim to fame, in 51.46 seconds

Embroiled in the struggles of fighting irregular electricity supply, heavy floods and unreliable phone network, who dreams of struggling to fly in an airplane and travelling foreign lands some day?

Well, who dreams of it and fulfils it too soon to appear reality? It’s a girl who clocked 51.46 seconds at the women’s 400 m final at the IAAF World Under 20 Championship 2018, in Tampere, Finland creating history as the first Indian woman to win a gold on track at a global event — not even two years since she started professional training. Extraordinary achievements require extraordinary spirits, right?

Hima Das had something different about her that everyone she came across could sense. In 2012, Md Shamsul Hoque was a physical education teacher at the Navodaya Vidyalaya in Nagaon. In one of the inter-school camps, he noticed a girl who would reach before practice started, sometimes even when the gates were closed. “In the ten days that followed, the girl went on to win all the races we had organised,” says Hoque, who then called up the Nagaon Sports Association and informed them about Hima. “This girl can run. Invest in her,” he told the authorities.

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JNV Nagaon, where a certain Hima Das was first discovered

Kandhulimari village of Dhing district in Assam, where Hima had trained in the rice fields, became a known name after Hima reached the women’s 400 m finals of the Commonwealth Games (CWG) in Australia’s Gold Coast. She came sixth, after clocking her personal best of 51.32 seconds on an international track. Many such names are hidden in the unheard villages of Assam and India – connected through their extraordinary talent and lack of resources. Lack of fields, infrastructure, active coaches, operational sports associations and lack of basic amenities. Because while struggling against the dearth of these basic facilities, who dreams of “dreaming big”? What made Hima Das what she is today is the combined effort of her will, talent, the dedication of her coaches and her parents who sent her to play against all odds.

Hima studied at the Dhing Public High School, loved playing football with the boys of her village but never took part in any major tournaments, although she did participate in regional matches. She spent most of her early teen years pestering her cousin to let her play football with the guys. “Even if I wasn’t a part of the game, I’d wait behind the goal. When the ball would come near me, I’d give it one solid kick and run off before they could see me.”

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Hima at the XXI Commonwealth Games 2018, Gold Coast, Australia

From 2014 to 2016, Hima trained at the Nagaon Sports Association. Her family couldn’t always afford to pay for her travel but her coach, Gowri Shankar Roy, would always pitch in help whenever required. In 2016 she won gold at both the 100 m and 200 m at the Inter-district Sports Meet at Sivasagar. The same year, Hima qualified from Nagaon district for the Khelo India State Meet in Guwahati, where she again placed first in the 100m and 200m runs. Following that, she qualified for the Khelo India National Meet in Hyderabad and came under Nipon Das and Nobojit Malakar, her coaches in Guwahati.  Hima’s mother, Jonali Das, was reluctant to send her to Guwahati as moving out of their tiny village in Dhing was entering into a big city with big troubles. “But I would tell Ma that she shouldn’t worry, that very few things scare me,” says Hima. “And that I could always run off, even if they did.”

Nipon Das couldn’t help notice that there was something different about Hima. “It was the way she did her exercises, the way she ran — that energy was something else,” says Das. The next month Hima competed in her first national competition, Khelo India in Gujarat where she won the bronze medal in 100 m and clocked in a timing of 12.42 seconds. On being asked by Das and Malakar to accompany them to Guwahati, she told them ‘moi ready Sir’ and  packed her bags and moved to a one-roomed rented accommodation in Guwahati. “When I came to Guwahati, I knew nothing. I didn’t know how to wash clothes or cook, I was never into household chores. I hated all that. But I loved running.”

And that made the difference. “She was supremely dedicated. No matter what she went through the night before, she would be at the tracks every morning, on time,” says Malakar. Over the past year, Das and Malakar have become Hima’s strongest support system, they are the people she texts every single day, whichever part of the world she is in.

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Hima’s family with Sarbananda Sonowal, Chief Minister, Assam, India

Before heading into a race, Hima always gives them a rough estimate of how she will fare. “And rarely has she been off the mark,” says Das. In November 2017, when Hima got selected to train in the Senior India Camp in Patiala, Russian Olympic bronze medallist Olympian, Galina Bukharina, took over as Hima’s coach. Before her Finland race, Hima called up Md Shamsul Hoque too, as she does all her coaches, to seek his blessings. In the race that followed, everyone talks about Hima’s sudden burst in the last 100 m stretch where she shot ahead like a catapult. But this trend of judiciousness in the beginning followed by mad speed in the last stretch is fast becoming her trademark.

She insists every time that what she’s running after is time, not gold medals. Once she catches up with the time, gold medals will run after her. What’s the most attractive about her is the honesty, “The people around me could be Olympic gold medalists. But I don’t take tension. If I do, how will I run my race?”

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The winning moment: IAAF U-20 World Championships 2018, Tampere, Finland

This feat still seems unbelievable to her joint family of 17 and all the residents of Dhingi who’ve seen her run and play around them like all the other children. But her strong will, self belief and the courage to be up for any new challenge set her apart. Her talent, which she believes is God’s gift, was recognised early and nurtured to match up to the international level.

Such talents in every field are hidden somewhere, in all parts of the country. Hima Das was lucky to have a supporting family despite all odds and coaches who put effort to take her to new strides everyday, along with her talent. We all need to encourage people in the smallest of the parts of the nation, to cater to the needs of  talent. Because talent alone can’t scale such heights. And if respected and appreciated, all the dreams, be it travelling in an airplane or flying an airplane aren’t big enough to scare any spirit.

By Jivat Neet Kaur

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