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, has played a parental role in guiding his ward to glory, too.
The Asian Games gold medallist and her coach spoke to Sportstar on a range of issues.
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 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 talent, choose the right event and then make the most of the talent. I am partially successful.
When you saw her for the first time, did you feel that this girl had enough potential
Sarkar: 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 (Sports Authority of India) 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.
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 would 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 on 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 could 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 the Asian Championships, I knew an Asian Games medal was not far away. We had good preparation, so I was confident.
Swapna was nursing three injuries that included a recurring back injury, a grade-3 meniscus tear and a wounded ankle. She was also suffering from 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 continued to take load on the knee, the injury would worsen.
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 GoSports 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 wouldn’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 6,026 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 6,100-6,200. Such feats don’t happen miraculously and you need to prepare for them. 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 a few areas that need 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 50m and she could do it.
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 realised that for every athlete, money is very important. Without funds, you cannot maintain a proper diet or a training regime. But then, having a good coach is also important. Sir has helped me a lot.
Sarkar: A few years ago, she had been offered a job in 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 in training and ensure that the talent was not lost. Coming from a lower-middle-class family, a job was important for her, 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 if she followed my advice and stayed 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 her athletics 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.
Swapna was included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) last year. How did that help?
Sarkar: The TOPS definitely helped. The money given by the government encouraged her to continue. I am grateful to our sports minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Because of that backing, I could keep her grounded and focus on the training.
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 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.
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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 want to just focus on the 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 customised shoes. So, we need at least six months to one year to analyse how beneficial it is for her.
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