The viral video of young Hima Das surging past her competitors in the last few moments of the 400 metres run at the World Junior Athletics Championships to win the gold cemented the fact that this was a sprinter that India, and the world for that matter, would not easily forget. But long before the whole world came to know of this young sprinter or her potential, it was her parents, friends, relatives, teachers and coaches who spotted the ‘fire in her belly’. We tell the story of this gifted sprinter through the tales of the people who helped her get to where she is now.
Hima was born to a humble joint family in Kaandhulimari village, 3 kilometres from Dhing. It is an unassuming village and there is nothing in particular that will catch your eye once you arrive, but there is one thing that makes this place special and that is the warmth of the locals. The moment I knock on the door of an Assam-type house, that I am told is Hima’s residence by friendly villagers, I am welcomed inside by her parents with the quintessential Assamese hospitality that has become a lost art in the bigger cities across the State. Her father, a farmer by profession and her mother, a friendly housewife insist on making all efforts to ensure that I am comfortable. The inside of the house is humble and there is nothing pretentious about the decor or the way they both converse with countless journalists who come by to ask about their daughter or well-meaning citizens who want to convey their best wishes. Aside from her parents, she has three younger siblings.
Ranjt Das, her father revealed that Hima’s interest in sports began when she was still in school. In fact, he would constantly worry that she would go to school only to play and not to study. However, he learnt soon enough to trust his daughter who could dabble in both. ‘She used to tell me, “Deuta, (Assamese for father) I will pass the exams, you need not worry.”‘
She pursued her education in Auniaati Lower Primary School and Dhing Public High School. A student with great potential, she was not one to keep to herself. She was the General Secretary of her school and, unsurprisingly, she was also the secretary of the Dhing Sport’s Club. She was always eager to help her classmates. In fact, once when one of her classmates fainted in school, Hima, carried her classmate and ran to the nearest civil hospital. She did not even wait to ask for her teacher’s permission because she knew that each moment lost could be dangerous for her classmate.
Her friends and neighbours also reveal that Hima has always been very open and straight forward. ‘She does not like hiding anything. She does everything openly,’ they chime. Principal of Dhing High School, Premeswar Thakuaria recalled, ‘Hima is a clear-cut straight-forward girl. Once she came to me asking for money. She was hungry and wanted to eat something. She was the student’s general secretary then. She doesn’t hesitate to ask and that always made her stand apart.’
Hima also had a habit of picking up new skills through observation; she learnt electrical repairing from her friend and even learnt playing many musical instruments by spending time in the Namghar (prayer houses in Assam).
Her passion for running most probably started when she used to accompany her father on his morning runs. ‘I used to go running early in the morning and I would almost always take her along. She was very eager to go running. Slowly, I stopped going for runs but she was so driven by her passion and continued to run daily. I remember, even during annual sports day events in school, she would only be interested in athletics. As she grew older, her interest in running also grew.’
One of the first track events that she took part in was a race held at Dhing Jawahar Navoday Vidayalaya. After her run, one of her teachers recommended her to go for training. He provided her with the contact of Gaurishankar Prasad, who was the athletics coach in Nagaon district. ‘She came to me and said that she wanted to go to meet him. I accompanied her to the Nagaon stadium and met Gauri Sir. He trained her for a week, and immediately she was sent for inter-district races. She went to Dhekiajuli, Sivsagar and a few other places. She even bagged a few medals,’ shared her father.
After finishing her races, she returned back home. Since there were no more track training sessions, she started playing football. ‘Once, a women football match was going on near our house between Aamsoi and Morigaon. I went with her to watch the match. She was excited and wanted to play; she forced me to talk to the committee. I asked the committee if there was any chance of Hima playing. Luckily, the Aamsoi side were looking for a substitute and Hima soon became a part of their team. She scored a goal just two minutes after half time. She played so well that pretty soon both teams started to hire her for matches.’ The teams would pay for her travel expenses and some other expenses. Hima would request her mother to save the money and she would later use the same to travel for successive matches. ‘In one of the matches held in Dhing itself, male football lovers in the stands were cheering for Hima. They even commented “this girl can run faster than most boys” and at that moment, I really felt like a proud father.’
Hima’s father confided that he used to be worried a little when she used to travel for football matches. ‘She used to reach home at around 10:30 pm or 11 pm at night. I used to go to the station and wait for her to arrive. Even though I would be worried about her, I consoled myself and still allowed her to play. I could understand things from her perspective as I myself used to play football when I was young. I played for small clubs. Most people who had seen me playing say that she got her talent for running from me. If that is indeed true, I am quite blessed.’
However, just because she was playing football matches, she wasn’t going to abandon her love for athletics which is why she was also training for inter-district athletics side-by-side. For many athletes around the world, training would mean heading to the nearest all weather running track. But for a girl from a small village where sprinters are a rarity, finding a readymade track near her home was an impossible task so she used to make one at the Dhing sports field. She used a measuring tape to mark out 100m, 200m and 400m to practice running. ‘She is naturally fast and her passion to run gave her motivation to give her all on the track. She competed in many inter-district races, first in Dhekiajuli, then in Sivasagar districts. After competing in many such events, Gauri Sir recommended her to go take part in a camp, which was being held in Guwahati. It was there that she was spotted by coach Nipon Das. Coaches would always approach her because of her speed and attitude on the race track.’
Hima’s mother, a simple woman, couldn’t even understand at first that running could lead to fame. ‘I never thought that she would create history by running. But I knew she would make something of herself because she is very hardworking. I can see her dedication when she goes to the field for practice.’
A fan club in the name of Hima Das is being created by the people of Dhing. The club will provide a platform for the youth of Dhing where they can train in different sporting activities. ‘We shall try to bring forth talents and inspire the youth of this region to take up sports as a career option,’ said Premeswar Thakuria.
Honing the Talent
Before being shifted to the national training camp, Hima Das trained under coach Nipon Das. ‘We come across a lot of young kids with potential in these camps. We can easily gauge the strengths and weaknesses of these athletes and we also tend to understand how far the athlete will go. In one such sports camp in January 2017, we came across Hima Das.’ The camp was organized by the Sports Department of the Assam government. She attended the camp with many other bright athletes but her discipline, hard work and confidence level caught the attention of senior coaches present at the camp. It was evident to them that Hima would go far with proper coaching, equipment, training, and diet.
‘Usually in training camps, all the young athletes who attend think that they can go the distance. But they fall short on the hard work and dedication required, but that is not the case with Hima. She gave it her all and it showed. Her discipline and punctuality were outstanding. She was always focused during practice.’
Hima trained at the Indira Gandhi Athletics Stadium from January to July in 2017. After July, she was shifted to the Sport’s Academy located near Supermarket, Dispur, Guwahati, where the sports department arrange better training facilities to prepare athletes for national events. She trained till October and then left for the Indian senior camp in Mumbai where she was mentored by foreign coach Galina.’
Regarding the training schedules of athletes, coach Navajit Malakar shared, ‘Training schedule is different for different categories. There is a common warm-up session for everyone but for 100m, 200m, 400m or relay race, the training varies. This is because the loading capacity is different for everyone at the initial stage, and it also depends on the period of training. Depending on the scale of improvement and timing, we schedule the training. Depending on the timing, an athlete is given low load, medium load or high load. Also, in some cases, individual attention is necessary.’
Apart from coaches, there have been other well wishers who have helped Hima along the way. One of the officials of the Sports Authority of Assam shared, ‘We have to look after the requirements of each player. But when a player excels, we provide with the basic necessities and there are people who come forward to help with the rest. Doctor Putul Gogoi helped Hima financially on many occasions. He arranged funds to help her attend different sports events, provided travelling expenses and more.’ In addition to that, Lakhya Konwar, Member Secretary of State Level Advisory Committee for Students and Youth Welfare also helped the talented sprinter. In fact, he was the first person to get Hima a pair of spikes and have always supported and encouraged her to improve. Her desire to grow and succeed motivated people to help her, which is why despite her humble background, things always fell into place.
Mon Jai Club
The Mon Jai Club consists of seven members accompanied by Hima Das. They organize local matches and much more. ‘She was in class 7 when we formed our group. She was always eager to help people and that added positivity to the group. Though she could not contribute financially, she helped physically,’ shared Bhargav, one of the members.
‘We watched the match live. After she won, we were celebrating. Her parents had gone to bed after getting the news so she called us and shared how her humble parents behaved quite normally to her historic victory. Around midnight, Farhan Akhtar tweeted, congratulating her on her victory and then some time later President Ram Nath Kovind also tweeted. She had won many races but this time the feeling was different, the President of India was congratulating a girl from our area. It made us feel proud. We celebrated for the next few days.’
Staying Rooted and Getting Ahead
Despite the attention and the exposure, Hima is still the same young girl who left her village with dreams in her eyes. She always stays connected with her parents and family. ‘Whenever she calls, she makes a point to ask about each member. We have pet dogs, pigeons and cows that are very dear to her. She video calls so that she gets to see them as well,’ said Hima’s aunt, Pushpalata Das. She also shares updates about her training, schedules and diet plans with the family.
As a person Hima is very positive and so her friends are sure that she will continue to progress. ‘Hima channelizes her positive energy and confidence in the right direction. She never lets her losses affect her psychologically. She does not care too much about losing,’ stated one of her childhood friends. Another friend from Dhing, Bhaskar informed that her confidence is commendable. ‘During a recent interstate meet, national record holder Nirmala Sheoran was present and we felt a bit tense, but to our surprise, Hima did not even flinch and grabbed the gold. Her confidence level is a big plus point.’
Hima’s father is always rooting for his daughter’s success, ‘She is very determined and takes her practice very seriously. Before taking up any task, she calculates how to go about it and then decides accordingly. I encourage her all the time. I hope the blessings of all the people will push her to continue winning.’
Although she has enrolled in Dhing College, she could not sit for her college exam because she needed to travel to Jakarta. It was the right decision because she won gold in the 200m race. Hima promised her father that she would be taking the exam next year.
When Hima made history, the whole world couldn’t stop gushing about this young sprinter from Assam. Indian racing Queen PT Usha commented, ‘It feels really good to see an Indian winning gold at an international race event.’ Starting from the President of India and the Prime Minister to movie stars and sportspersons like Sachin Tendulkar and Virendar Sehwag, all took to Twitter to praise the golden girl.
One of her goals now is to take part in the 2020 Olympic Games, with the way things are going, we are sure she will reach that stage and the people of Dhing and the rest of the world will continue to cheer her every step of the way.
By Manjum Mahanta