The Dhing Express!

From local shoes to a world brand... the astounding progress of a committed athlete.

Hima Das, the humble girl from Assam who has taken the athletics world by storm, is now a UNICEF Youth Ambassador.   -  AP

The only pair of shoes among some 120 pairs of slippers — a few with the straps stitched — had signs of wear. But they appeared cared for.

They were not the ubiquitous white canvas shoes most schools in Assam ask their students to wear for periodic sports events. They were a tad pricier and colourful, probably gifted during the springtime Rongali Bihu or the autumnal Durga Puja.

Good enough for the races this winter, Md. Shamsul Hoque thought.

The girl with the colourful canvas shoes set the pace, leaving the other 12-year-olds behind in the 50m, 100m and 200m sprints.

“She made all the difference in the pace-setting activities. No girl or boy had dominated the sprints like her before, none has since,” Hoque, 45, says.

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Hoque is a physical education teacher at the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya in Morigaon, about 80km east of Assam’s principal city Guwahati. Pace-setting activities are regular Navodaya Vidyalaya events envisaged to let children of neighbouring rural schools use its facilities for physical and psychological growth.

In 2013, Hoque taught physical education at the Navodaya Vidyalaya on the outskirts of Dhing in the adjoining Nagaon district. Of the 120 boys and girls who participated in the pace-setting activities that year, the girl with the canvas shoes caught his eye.

It wasn’t only the shoes. She was the only one wearing track pants. And always the first to report — for the yoga classes in the morning and the athletics training in the evening — cycling from Dhing Public School 3km away or from her home at Kandhulimari village 6km away.

“You could sense that this girl had the X-factor. She was disciplined, confident and never in awe of who her competitors were — qualities that coaches seek in their students,” Hoque says.

It took 10 days of pace-setting activities for the girl with the canvas shoes to be known as the girl who won all the races. Some knew her as “the girl who plays football with the boys,” others as the one who once raced with a Sumo (SUV) and won after the driver refused to give her a lift home. Hoque knew the world beyond Dhing would soon know her by her name — Hima Das. After the event at his school, he called up the Nagaon District Sports Association and urged them to invest in “this girl who can really run.”

Hima Das on way to the women’s 400m gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships, in Tampere, Finland on July 12, 2018.   -  PTI

 

Hima got through the district trials in 2013. But she could not produce her birth certificate; a fire at her house had destroyed it along with other documents.

The failure to represent Nagaon district in the sub-juniors category brought out Hima’s calmness and a positive attitude. She took it as an opportunity to get used to a pair of running shoes with metal spikes she had received for the Nagaon trials.

She practised running at the village grazing ground, about 50m from her house. She was in action before the villagers let their cattle loose at dawn and after dusk when they would take them back home. The practise helped her represent Nagaon district in 2014, but she did not get a medal at the inter-district athletics event in western Assam’s Goalpara. She also failed in the inter-district nationals in Visakhapatnam that year. The 2015 inter-district in north-central Assam’s Dhekiajuli earned her a bronze in the 100m.

“Her journey to the big league began with her 100m bronze medal at the 2016-17 Khelo India event,” Hoque says. She would soon be known as the girl who chases time.

Hima remained a nameless athlete in the bigger arena of Guwahati until her Khelo India performance. “She came for a trial camp in Guwahati in January 2017. She would often call for this or that information. I did not know her name, so I saved her number as ‘Trial Camp’,” Nipon Das, one of her Guwahati-based coaches, says.

But Das and fellow coach Nabajit Malakar noticed there was something different about the wiry girl. Her desire to excel and her energy levels were stronger than any other athlete they could remember having trained.

“The day she reported for training, I noticed she wore shoes with low-grade sole and spikes that were 12mm. They were meant for running on grass, unlike the 9mm needed for better traction and force on a synthetic surface,” Das says.

The shift to Guwahati and shorter spikes saw Hima clocking her personal best of 51.32 seconds in the 400m women’s final of the Commonwealth Games in Australia’s Gold Coast in April 2018. She finished sixth but felt good about her performance.

The feeling paid dividends at the National Athletics Championship in Guwahati in June when she won gold in the 200m and 400m. She clocked 51.46 seconds in the 400m final at the IAAF World Under-20 Championship 2018 in Finland’s Tampere a month later, creating history as the first Indian woman to win gold on track at a global event in less than two years of professional training.

The Dhing Express, as she came to be known by now, went on to win three medals at the Jakarta Asian Games in September — gold in women’s 4x400m and silver in the mixed 4x400m and 400m individual.

“She called me at 8:15 p.m. IST the day she won the gold in Finland. She said she went nowhere in Finland beyond the accommodation-stadium route during her week-long stay. That’s focus for you,” Hoque says.

He knows such concentration on the target — to be the fastest — is rare for a teenager. “I take teams of various age groups under 20 to tournaments across India, and almost all the boys and girls yearn to go sight-seeing more than focusing on their events,” he says.

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The 16 other members of the joint Das family were glued to the TV set when she performed in Tampere.

The village, like most others in Assam, was notorious for power cuts; Hima’s father Ranjit Das, a progressive farmer owning 45 bighas of agriculture land, had hired a generator to ensure they did not miss her making history.

His eyes were also moist when Adidas, one of the top global sportswear brands, made her the brand ambassador soon after her return from Jakarta. The shoes Hima sported at the promotional event made him feel the world was at her feet.

But that wasn’t the only reason why he became emotional. It reminded him of the days when he could have given her a better pair of shoes to run, but didn’t because he had no time to go shopping and was not sure where his daughter was headed.

“Her parents often did not know why she needed to be away from home. But they had confidence in her and never had any qualms about sending her with us for a practice session or competition. That was a tremendous boost for her,” Hoque says.

That confidence also let Hima be a social activist — she had, at 15, led a group of women in destroying one of her neighbours’ illicit liquor unit. Or as a leader of the local unit of the All Assam Students’ Union, organising rallies for ‘national interest’, such as protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 that many in Assam fear would lead to the dumping of non-Muslim migrants from Bangladesh in the State.

Hima’s parents and mentors, such as the Dhing-based educator Biman Hazarika, hope that the adulation and brand promotion would not go to her head as a few before her in Assam had faded away despite the promise. “Brand associations are important, but I know I will be nothing if I lose focus,” the 18-year-old track queen said a few weeks ago.

“She is focussed on outrunning others. The best thing about her is that a loss does not demoralise her; it eggs her on to give that much more without caring much about her opponents. The positivity is contagious,” Nipon Das says.

Assam Governor Jagdish Mukhi felicitates Hima Das with traditional Assamese mementoes, the Japi (headgear) and Xorai (a decorative piece made usually of bell-metal) in Guwahati in July 2018.   -  PTI

 

Before reigning in Tampere, Hima knew she had big shoes to fill — of Bhogeswar Baruah, Assam’s first athlete to win an international gold medal (800m at the 1966 Bangkok Asian Games). The 78-year-old Baruah, who had once lamented that he might not live to see “another Bhogeswar,” realised he was wrong when Hima struck gold. “We have someone better,” he says.

The energy that Hima exudes has helped Hoque drill his campaign into several young minds within a 50 sq km area in Nagaon district. “I tell them engaging in athletics will make them physically fit for any job, especially the armed forces, or get into good educational institutions on sports quota,” he says. Since Hima burst on to the tracks locally, one of Hoque’s students has got into an engineering college while another is headed for a medical college. Five others are set to graduate from physical training colleges in Amaravati, Maharashtra, and Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh.

The Hima effect has also helped Hoque motivate parents in Nagaon district’s Raha, Rupohi, Bebejia and Samaguri to send their wards to a training camp he began conducting two months ago. Twenty of the 72 boys and girls got selected for a district event. They included 15-year-old Puspanjali of a village near Raha on Asian Highway 1. She had a pair of white canvas shoes on. “Mooru mon jai (even I feel like)... running fast and earning a better pair of shoes,” she says.

Mon jai  is a reference to Hima’s catchphrase, inspired by a Zubeen Garg (Assamese singer) number, for doing what one wishes to.

But Puspanjali — fellow sprinters Niharika and Martin Terang too — know Hima’s are big shoes to fill, bigger perhaps than Baruah’s.