Swapna Barman: The Indian Heptathlete Who Struck Gold

Coach Subash Sarkar talks to ParentCircle exclusively about the journey of his star athlete and how she overcame adversities to become a winner.

By Leena Ghosh

Swapna Barman: The Indian Heptathlete Who Struck Gold
Pic source: Facebook

Swapna Barman’s journey from Jalpaiguri to Jakarta has been nothing short of historic. Battling sports injuries and excruciating toothache to win the gold for India at the 2018 Asian Games, Swapna proved true the quote by Benjamin Franklin, ‘There are no gains without pains’. She scored an impressive 6,012 points, defeating Wang Qingling of China. Swapna led in most of the seven events of the heptathlon – a contest that includes the 100m hurdles, high jump, 200m, shot put, javelin throw, long jump and 800m – to clinch the gold medal. For young athletes around the world, Swapna's is an inspirational story that will be told for years to come.

Her coach, Subhash Sarkar, who spotted this gem in 2011 when she was training under one of his students in Jalpaiguri, saw in her ‘a tremendous potential’ though he was doubtful of her performance in the beginning. In an exclusive interview with ParentCircle, Sarkar talks about the journey of his golden heptathlete and the odds she battled against to come out as a winner. Following are the excerpts from the interview.

Tell us about Swapna’s journey from the moment you spotted her in Jalpaiguri to her winning the gold for her country in the 2018 Asian Games.

In 2011, Swapna was training under one of my students. When I first met her at Jalpaiguri, I didn’t think she had the right physique for a high jumper. So, I was doubtful. But, she had won a medal in the junior nationals (at school level) and I wanted to explore her potential. So, I began training her. Within a few years, her ability to jump improved dramatically. Then, I thought about making her participate in the Asian Games. In 2013, I decided to propose her name for combined events. Starting off in 2013, her aggregate score was 4,335 points, and by 2014, she had accumulated 5,400 points. She won the senior national silver medal in 2014 and got the ticket for the Asian Games at the age of 17. But, she wasn’t able to perform. In 2015, she faced a lot of injuries and was out of practice for three months. Swapna is prone to injuries because of the posture she maintains while running and her 12 toes; but, she has learnt to perform in spite of the pain. I started training her for the Asian Games and she was in great form by May. However, she injured her knee before the event. With help from GoSports and the doctors in Mumbai, we were able to manage the injury. Swapna overcame many adverse situations because of her sheer willpower and very good off-season training.

As a coach, how did you know that Swapna was special?

As coaches, we are trained to spot talents and develop an instinct about who would go on to become a good sportsperson. Swapna showed tremendous potential and I thought if I invested my time in training her, I would see the results in a few years. She can work very hard, is tenacious and can carry the workload required to make it to the top. While most students want to stop training after an hour or two, Swapna trains for four hours in the morning and two hours in the evening.

Swapna Barman: The Indian Heptathlete Who Struck Gold
Coach Subash Sarkar with Swapna Barman

Having 12 toes and shoes that don’t fit can be a big problem while running on the track. How did you train Swapna to overcome this hurdle?

Having 12 toes is a drawback for running. But, you have to learn to manage in a given situation and we did. We tried to consult experts and local footwear manufacturers, but nothing worked. The problem is that her toe area is large and the last two toes don’t get support from the sole. Every time her feet hit the ground, she gets a rotation around the ankle joint. So, the manufacturers face a big problem while trying to make shoes specific to her requirement. There are design restrictions. But, with practice, she overcame these problems to a certain extent and I guess her body too adapted to it. Previously, there was no interest in addressing this issue but now some big companies have approached us with designs. However, we still have to decide on what we would go with.

How did her family react when they got the news of their daughter making history?

Swapna comes from a simple background and her parents didn’t expect these results. While I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to her parents yet, I heard from my students that they are overwhelmed and very happy. Her mother became very emotional and her joy knew no bounds.

What are your future plans? Is the Olympic gold your next target?

At this juncture, we have to be realistic and go forward step by step. Her biggest achievement was to cross the 6,000 points barrier, which she did. But, to qualify for the Olympics, she has to score at least 6,200 points. For that, she has to prepare physically and mentally. As a coach, my responsibility is to bring out the best in her and explore her potential to the maximum. Right now, she needs a lot of training to reach the international standards required to master the heptathlon event. Her muscular strength is her biggest asset. We will work on her limitations and try to bring out her best performance. Winning the Olympics is not easy; but, we will work hard to make it happen. 

For now, a government-run company based in Chennai has offered to make customised shoes for Swapna after she returns to India. As she continues to beat the odds, here’s wishing the young athlete many more victories on the track. 

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