Hima Das became the toast of the nation following her historic run at the World U20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, that made her the first Indian to win a gold medal in a track event at a global meet, running the 400m in 51:46. But for people closely tracking her progress, it was no surprise. They always had faith in her ability to run fast and in her unmatched mental strength.
In fact, Das’ indomitable spirit has been the reason behind her astonishing success in a short span of time. For the gutsy 18-year-old, who mobilised people against infiltration and illegal liquor vendors in her native town of Dhing in Assam, translating her fearlessness into fine performances on the track was no big deal. Once she got proper guidance, she became a world champion within a year and a half.
Nipon Das, who spotted Hima at a talent hunt in Guwahati in January 2017 and mentored her, convinced the teenager to take up athletics instead of pursuing her first love — football. Recognising a special talent, he asked Hima to shift to the Assam capital to train on a regular basis.
Hima, who earlier ran the 100m and 200m, exhibited her potential by winning medals at Khelo India, the National School Games and the National Youth Meet to make it to the Asian Youth Athletics Championships in Bangkok in June last year. She placed seventh in the 200m with a time of 25:05 in the Thailand capital and qualified for the World U18 Championships in Nairobi, where she improved her time to 24:31 to finish fifth.
In the East Zone Junior Athletics Championships in Kolkata in September 2017, Hima won her first medal — a gold — in the 400m with a time of 55:57. She followed that up with a first-place finish in the 200m with 24:65.
The National Open Athletics Championships in Chennai that same month — where she couldn’t match her earlier showing in the 400m because of health issues but where she grabbed the 200m gold with 24:26 — brought the focus on Hima. She was picked for the 400m in the national camp, but not for 200m.
“Since her basic speed was good, we thought she would do well in 400m. Initially, she struggled to take the 400m workload. We realised that she was struggling due to her tender age and wanted to put her through the process slowly. We asked her to train for the 200m and sparingly do the 400m. We kept it a secret in order to avoid unnecessary controversy,” said Basant Singh, a coach at the national camp.
Excellent performances in the Federation Cup in Patiala in March won Hima the gold in the 400m with a time of 51:97 as well as the 200m with 23:37. At the Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast in April, she improved her 400m time again as she clocked 51:32 on her way to sixth in a highly competitive field.
Her reputation back home received another boost as she broke the meet record and edged out the experienced Nirmala Sheoran for the gold medal at the National Inter-State Championships — which were the selection trials for the Asian Games — in Guwahati in June.
“Seeing her previous performances, there was no doubt that she would win the world under-20 title convincingly,” said Singh. Hima herself exuded confidence. “I don’t fear anyone. There was no nerves about participating in a world-level meet for the first time,” she said with nonchalance.
When asked about her dramatic dash in the final 50m, she said, “You can say it’s Hima’s style! With experience, I am sure I can do better.”
However, to keep her family’s expectations low, Hima hadn’t told them about the importance of the final race in Tampere. “I didn’t tell them that it is the world championships. I had just told them that it was one of those athletics meets. The following day they learned about my feat,” she said.
“Hima is a brave girl. Her confidence is amazing. If she is guided well, she can get her timing around 50 seconds. With that kind of time, anything can happen in the Olympics,” said Basant Singh, eyeing the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But for the Assamese athlete, the current focus is the Asian Games, which will be held in Jakarta and Palembang between 18 August and 2 September.
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