Scouted on Instagram, Heena Mallick, 16, finds real life stardom on track

If her performance at the National Open 400m championships in Thiruvananthapuram, is any indicator, there’s probably going to be plenty of prizes in the years to come.

Indian sprinter Rezoana Heena Mallick

Indian sprinter Rezoana Heena Mallick | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

If her performance at the National Open 400m championships  in Thiruvananthapuram, is any indicator, there’s probably going to be plenty of prizes in the years to come.

In November 2021, Rezaul Mallick had a choice to make. His 14-year-old daughter Rezoana Heena loved athletics but facilities to pursue the sport were limited at home in rural Nadia, West Bengal. Then through a stroke of social media fortune, she was presented with the opportunity to train with a top coach in the south of India.

If there were any concerns about sending his young daughter to train alone in a distant part of the country, Rezaul doesn’t voice them. “ Isme darne ki koi baat nahi thi. Heena ko ek chance dena tha. Baaki Allah dekh lega, (there wasn’t any fear. Heena needed a chance and God would take care of the rest)” he says.

It’s a decision that’s worked out so far. On Monday, Heena broke an over-decade-old record in Indian athletics. And in what’s probably a testament to how sky high, she and her coaches think her limit is, her reward for that achievement was fairly modest. “ Ek chocolate donut khilaya sir ne bas (Sir gave me a chocolate donut),” she says.

Don’t feel too bad for her though. If her performance at the National Open 400m championships  in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday, is any indicator, there’s probably going to be plenty of prizes in the years to come though.

Ahead of the pack at the first curve of the 400m, Heena crossed the finish line in the U-16 women’s final in 53.22 seconds. The time was a new national record, erasing the 54.57 that Anjana Thamke had set in 2012. The time wasn’t just impressive for the U-16 race. She was the fastest across any age group at the 400m Championships – the senior woman’s race was won by Jyothi Dandika who clocked 53.25. Indeed Mallick, who will only turn 16 in another two weeks and who was competing in her first-ever race over the 400m distance (Competitions in the U-16 women’s age category usually feature the 300m) would have been the eighth fastest Indian woman had she recorded this time at a race last year. With her tall frame and wiry build and natural speed, Mallick has the potential to be the next big thing in Indian athletics. “This is nothing. Mark my words, everyone is going to know her name,” says her coach Ajay Arjun.

A year and a half ago though, all Arjun knew of her was that she was a persistent youngster who was constantly ‘liking’ pictures he posted on his Instagram profile. Coaching out of Bangalore, Arjun, a former national level runner himself, was already a well-known name in the Indian athletics community in 2021, with his students delivering impressive results, the highlight of which was a junior world bronze medal for Priya Mohan.

Mallick, meanwhile, was doing the best she could some 2000km away in the village of Sondanga in West Bengal’s Nadia district. She was from a family of sportspersons – father Rezaul, mother Anima and uncle Amir Ali had all played kabaddi at the national level. Indeed, her father’s cousin was a member of the Indian team that won a gold in kabaddi at the 1992 Asian Games.

Rezaul though was a fan of athletics, even naming his younger daughter Shiny after 90s Indian quartermiler Shiny Wilson.

A teacher at the local primary school, he encouraged Heena to play athletics when she was five years old. The little girl also took to it. “I liked running because it was fun and in my family, everyone encouraged me. But I think I also liked it because I didn’t like to study,” says Heena.

Heena was talented but not precociously so. Training under local coach, Aniruddh Pal Choudhary, she won medals at the district and state levels and even competed in a national talent search in Mumbai where she finished last. “I felt very bad after that race but I still wanted to run,” she says.

Chance through Instagram

Her chance finally came through Instagram. Heena had secretly created a profile on the app on her father’s phone and in 2021 started to follow all the athletes she could. “I was a big fan of Priya Mohan after she won bronze (in the mixed team relay in 2021). I liked everything Priya posted and then I followed Arjun  sir also after that,” says Heena.

Arjun recalls being intrigued by the young girl who was spam ‘liking’ his posts. “I didn’t know much about her athletics results but she had posted a few videos that really made me take notice of her. I could see that she was training on a grass field in a rural area. She was doing step jumps, hurdle drills and stride training. She might not have had any great results but there was clearly potential. She was tall – around 5’7”. Her stride pattern was good, The way she struck the ground with her foot made me think that if she put in good strength training, I could get a lot out of her. She had excellent hip extension and looked like she was attacking the track from the start. This was someone I felt could be pushed,” he says. Arjun admits he had never considered scouting an athlete off Instagram until then. “But when I saw her, I felt I had to see if she wanted to come to train. I felt it had to be destiny,” he says.

After messaging Heena, Arjun got in touch with her uncle Imran who then spoke to Rezaul. “I wasn’t sure whether they would agree to send her to train. There are so many young athletes who have potential but ultimately their family decides that they don’t want to risk sending them away from their home. And these are kids from well-off families with great support structures. Heena wasn’t even from that background,” he says.

Heena with her father Rezaul and family.

Heena with her father Rezaul and family. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

But there was no problem. “We are muslim, so sometimes it might seem that girls will not be encouraged to play sports or that it might be a problem because she had to wear shorts when she trains. But we are more  adhunik (modern) in our thinking. That has never been an issue in our family. And it’s not a problem in the village as well. Everyone has supported her and when we realised how senior a coach Arjun  sir was we trusted him completely,” says Imran. “I wanted to be an athlete when I was younger but I never did it. Now I can say I’m living my dream through her,” says Rezaul.

Their only concern was about the cost of training. Rezaul with his salary as a contract teacher in the village school is the family’s primary provider. “Arjun  sir told us not to worry about fees or anything. We try to pay what we can. There is also a foundation in Kolkata named Ultratrust organisation which contributes some money. But  sir takes care of almost everything else,” says Rezaul.

Heena, who first started training with coach Arjun’s group in Ooty and subsequently Bangalore has now adjusted completely to her new life in the south. “Everyone helps me. Priya  didi will give me shoes and kit and Arjun  sir’s mother treats me like her child. She even cooks biryani for me,” says Heena, who lives in a room near the DYES Sports ground in Bangalore, where she trains.

Hiccups along the way

There have been some slight hiccups, of course. While social media was responsible for her being scouted, to begin with, Heena had to be weaned off the app once she started training with coach Arjun. “She can be a complete brat,” says Arjun exasperatedly. “She was obsessed with using her phone and Instagram. She needed to sleep but I’d find her using her phone. Then to trick me she blocked me on it so I couldn’t see whether she was online or not. Finally, I had to confiscate the device,” says Arjun.

There was also the time where coach Arjun had her cut her shoulder-length hair to a boy cut. “He said it would be better for training and actually my timing improved by 2 seconds but the other trainees would start calling me a boy which I didn’t like,” she says. Teasing extended to her name as well. “My name is Heena but sometimes the other trainees will call me hyena. But I don’t mind because hyenas are very dangerous. I’m also very dangerous,” she says only half joking.

Heena with her coach Arjun.

Heena with her coach Arjun. | Photo Credit: PB BIJU

She’s indeed a threat on the track. In the year and a half that Heena’s been training with coach Arjun, she’s steadily improved. Prior to her record in the 400m he had set a U-16 national record in the 300m at the junior national championships in November last year. “Her attitude towards competing and training is like fire. She’s really intense and focussed. She wasn’t so confident in her abilities when she first came to train with us. But when you are training with a top group of athletes, you are driven to push yourself. She’s improved with every training session and time trial. She’s bought into the belief that I have,” says Arjun.

That belief is that Heena has the potential to be something special. “She has the talent to go and win medals at the biggest stage for India. There is still a long way to go though. “We have to stay focussed. She is very fast but someone like Sydney Mclaughlin was clocking a time of 50 seconds by the time she was 17. Heena has run 53.22 seconds now but I think she had the potential to run in the 52-second range. I also think she can run in the low 51-second mark over the next couple of years. But for that, we need to stay focussed and keep working hard. I want her to stay sharp for Asian Youth and Junior Asian championships. I think she even has the potential to make it to the Asian Games team,” says coach Arjun.

Heena is confident of the road ahead. “ Abhi bohot dur jana hai. Aur bohot medals lene hain (I still have a long way to go. I still have many medals to win),” she says.

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