Back, knee, ankle, toothache: What Swapna Barman overcame on way to Asian Games gold

Swapna Barman was nursing a back injury, a grade 3 meniscus tear and a wounded ankle. The heptathlete also had to overcome a toothache for the Asian Games gold...

Swapna Barman won a historic Asian Games gold in heptathlon, battling through pain.   -  AFP

Swapna Barman is very particular about numbers. Every time her coach, Subhash Sarkar, gets a figure wrong, the heptathlete corrects him.

The coach, for his part, has been correcting Swapna’s technique and moulding her to be a better athlete for the last six years.

“It would have not been possible to come so far without his help,” Swapna admits. The seasoned coach, who has been with the athlete through thick and thin, too, has played a parental role in guiding his ward to glory.

The Asian Games gold medallist and her coach spoke to Sportstar on Wednesday afternoon on a range of issues.

Excerpts...

The country celebrated Swapna's Asian Games success. As a coach, could you tell us how challenging a journey it was?

Sarkar: It was a big challenge. Her physique is not conducive for high-jump or heptathlon. If you are a high-jumper, the lower leg should be stronger, the body weight should be less and you must be skinny. It is also important to have a good height. Swapna does not have much similarity with the traditional high-jumpers. The only thing that worked for her was the fact that she had a very good jumping power. So we cashed in on that and tried getting the best out of her. That was the beginning, but I realised a littler later that she could fare well in heptathlon. I am happy that my instinct was right and the move paid off. That’s what a coach is supposed to do — spot talents, choose the right event and then make the most of the talent. I am partially successful.

READ | Swapna Barman, the athlete with 12 toes, bags gold

When you saw her for the first time, did you feel that this girl has enough potential?

Like Swapna, even I come from Jalpaiguri. So, during one of my visits home for Durga Puja, I saw a group of youngsters doing well in athletics. That’s when Swapna caught my eye. Samir Das, a local coach, told me that this girl was doing quite well and I must support her. That’s how it started in 2011. The next year, I got her to the SAI hostel in Kolkata and trained her in high-jumping. Later, I also encouraged her to take up long jump, shot put and javelin throw. She fared well in all the disciplines. That’s when it struck me that I should change her course and encourage her to take up heptathlon. She participated in her first meet in Guntur in 2013 and won a silver. That’s how it all started.

“When the MRI revealed that there was a grade 3 meniscus tear, many in the fraternity felt that she was going on a pleasure trip to Jakarta. I don’t blame them because you really cannot expect much from an injured athlete. But I was hoping against hope. Both of us had worked immensely for this and we really did not want to let it go.”— Subhash Sarkar, Swapna Barman’s coach

Swapna, you shifted base to Kolkata six years ago. Did you ever imagine yourself winning a gold medal at the Asian Games?

Swapna: Not at all!I did not think that I could come this far. An Asian Games gold was beyond my imagination. When I came to Kolkata, I was confident of doing something meaningful, but a gold was never in my mind. But it feels good to have come so far.

Sarkar: I was confident. My student Hari Shankar Roy, a high-jumper, was close to winning an Asian Games medal in Doha. In 2013, I thought that Swapna can win an Asian Games medal. The planning started right after and the 2014 Asian Games was a learning curve. In the last five years, she has achieved a lot. Last year, when she won a gold at Asian Championships, I knew an Asian Games medal was not far away. We had good preparation, so I was confident.

ALSO READ | Swapna Barman realises the dream of hometown Denguajhar

Swapna was nursing three injuries that included a reoccurring back injury, grade 3 meniscus tear and a wounded ankle. She was also suffering a toothache...

Sarkar: There were too many injuries. I was initially worried whether she would be able to compete. When the MRI revealed that there was a grade 3 meniscus tear, many in the fraternity felt that she was going on a pleasure trip to Jakarta. I don’t blame them because you really cannot expect much from an injured athlete. But I was hoping against hope. Both of us had worked immensely for this and we really did not want to let it go. One of the senior doctors said that if she continues to take load on the knee, the injury would worsen.

Swapna’s heroic story of overcoming a lower back pain and a toothache to win the heptathlon title is well known now.   -  PTI

  While running, it could even lock the knee and that would require surgery. That actually scared me because I did not want to put her in such a situation. That’s when Go Sports Foundation helped us to visit Mumbai and consult a couple of senior doctors. Both of them assured me that there were no chances of the knee getting locked as the injury had occurred in a postural part; there would be pain but it won’t lock the knee. That gave me the confidence. The target then was to manage the pain. Thankfully, we could battle the odds and finally make her compete. The world saw what happened thereafter.

If not for the injuries, do you think she could have scored more than the 6026 points she collected to win the gold in Jakarta?

Sarkar: Definitely. When I tested her in May, I was confident that she would score around 6100-6200. Such feats don’t happen miraculously and you need to prepare for it. She was well prepared. But I feel she could have scored even better in long jump. I was expecting 620-plus scores, but that did not happen. In 200m, I expected her to clock 25.57. That also did not happen. There are few areas that needs improvement. I had set a target of 13m in shot put, which she achieved in practice sessions but could not deliver in the finals. In javelin, the target was 50 and she could do it.

ALSO READ | Swapna Barman – Overcoming pain more than opponents

 

Despite clinching a gold medal in the Asian Games, you still don’t have a job...

Swapna: What do I say? I really can’t say much about jobs, but I have realized that for every athlete, money is very important. Without funds, you cannot maintain proper diet or training regime. But then, having a good coach is also important. Sir has helped me a lot.

Sarkar: A few years ago, she had received a job from the Railways, but that was a lower scale job. By then, she had already competed at the Asian Games in 2014. It was important at that time to keep her under check and ensure that the talent is not lost. Coming from a lower middle-class family, a job was important, but at that time, I felt that the particular job offered to her, was not ideal. So I asked her to let that go.

Most of her friends got jobs and she was also hoping to take up the job, but then, I made her realise that taking up the job could mean sacrificing her sports career. I am glad she listened to me. I was confident that even she follows my advice and stays grounded, getting a job would not be a problem. Later, when she picked up too many injuries, I had second thoughts. Many suggested that I should let her take the job, because if she failed to recover from injuries, there was a possibility of the career coming to a halt. But thankfully, all that is solved now. After the Asian Games, she has got a few offers — including the Railways — and we are considering them.

“Her (Swapna’s) physique is not conducive for high-jump or heptathlon. If you are a high-jumper, the lower leg should be stronger, the body weight should be less and you must be skinny. It is also important to have a good height. Swapna does not have much similarity with the traditional high-jumpers. The only thing that worked for her was the fact that she had a very good jumping power.” — Subhash Sarkar

 

Swapna was included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) last year. How did that help?

Sarkar: The TOPS definitely helped. That money given by the government encouraged her sustain. I am grateful to our Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Because of that backing I could keep her grounded and focus on the training.

Subhash Sarkar has been correcting Swapna’s technique and moulding her to be a better athlete for the last six years.

 

Over the last few days, Swapna has become a celebrity and everyone is talking about her. Even her singing talent is being talked about. How challenging will it be for a coach to ensure that the ward stays grounded?

Sarkar: It will be a big challenge. Recently, she went to an event attended by Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. She had offers coming from directors, producers among others. People were busy clicking ‘selfies’ with her. In such situations, it is very easy to lose track, but we need to control her and guide her properly. I have told her that all such lucrative offers should be avoided till 2022. Let’s see how it goes. It is easy to fade away, so the challenge is to stay grounded.

Swapna: I am not a celebrity.Earlier, I did not take my singing seriously, but I am glad that the West Bengal CM praised my singing talent. Let’s see how it goes.

ALSO READ | Asiad gold medallist Swapna to get customised Adidas shoes

Now that the Asian Games is over, what are the plans for the next few months?

Sarkar: The next few months will be used for recovery. The Asian championships is in April, she will participate only if she is fit by then. The World Championships will be in August and hopefully, there will be a qualifying event by then. We will take things accordingly. Now she has that experience, I am sure the scores won’t go below 5,900. I don’t want to rush things and focus on Tokyo Olympics.

Swapna: Let’s see what the doctors advise and then we will decide on the future course of action. As of now, I have not thought much. I went for a 3D foot scan and it was a new experience because we have not seen something like this before. Let’s see how it goes.

She will now be getting customised shoes for her 12-toed feet..

Sarkar: She is accustomed to normal shoes. It needs to be seen whether she is comfortable with the customized shoes. So, we need at least six months to one year to analyse how beneficial it is for her.