How Swpna battled obstacles to realise her dream

How Swpna battled obstacles to realise her dream

Swapna Barman

Swapna Barman participated in long jump, high jump, 100m hurdles, 200m, javelin, shot put and 800m to clinch the heptathlon gold medal in Jakarta Asian Games back in 2018.

And she did so with a severe toothache and a grade three tear, which required injections to keep the pain at bay, in her knee.

At the end of the final event, as Swapna - who had collapsed at the finish line - held aloft the tri-colour with a medical tape on her face, it said all. She had done it.

Her iron will, wrought in the flames of all the barriers in her path, had seen her through. There was nothing that was going to keep the then 21-year-old from winning the gold. She had overcome just too many obstacles to fall at the final hurdle.

Born in a village near Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, Swapna lived in a house with a concrete wall, as the story goes. It was she, with her prize money who built it up. Her mother worked in a tea estate while her father pulled a rickshaw. However, in 2013 her father suffered a stroke and was bedridden, cutting the already meagre income in the family significantly. Her mother left her job to nurse him, took odd jobs here and there while her brother’s measly income became the primary source of income for the family.

But Swapna was already on track in her career, driven by her fierce desire to succeed. Her coaches speak of a girl who could barely afford to train but had the will and belief in her eyes.

"I met her in my native place when I visited for Pooja back in 2011," remembers her coach Subhas Sarkar. "She was young and appearance was not that of a sportsperson but even then, she had that explosive power."

Convinced of her potential, he took a young Swapna to Kolkata for training, under Sports Authority of India, where he converted her to a heptathlete.

"I thought in respect for her physique and height, high jump may not be an option in the future. So I decided to move her into combined events because she had the power and drive to be a champion. Also, competition was not that high level so with her talent, she can get a medal at the Asian level for India, I thought," he said.

That was the switch she needed.

Her first event, a Youth Nationals in Guntur, she bagged the silver medal, confirming her coach's belief in her credentials.

A year later, another silver in the Federation Cup in Patiala ensured her participation in the Incheon Asian Games in 2014 where she finished fifth as a 17-year-old. 

However, fate had never been kind to her.

With six toes on each foot, finding a boot was always a challenge, especially with the lack of funds at her disposal. With sprints and landing from jumps a regular routine, the crushing pressure on her feet was a constant companion for the young athlete during training. But, as it’s always been the case, she grit her teeth and carried on and brought glory to India.

When she was struck by a severe back injury that would trouble her for over two years, she found it hard to compete.

However, she did return in time to win gold in home soil in the 2017 Asian Athletics Championship in Bhubaneswar with 5942 points only to be struck down again by hamstring and ankle injury.

Again, she rose from the ashes of her struggles to win silver in the Federation Cup in Guwahati and qualify for her second Asian Games. Disaster struck again, this time with a grade three tear in her knee.

The coach remembers the trouble she had to not just overcome the pain, but to ensure she was on the flight for the Games.

"She joined the national camp on July 15, 2018. She couldn't practice. She was doing only physio, upper body strengthening and swimming for 10 days. Everyone in the camp knew about it and she was no longer a priority in the camp," reveals her coach.

A doctor in Mumbai would suggest an operation and skipping the games, but for Swapna, that was not an option. With the fear of not knowing what could be in another four years' time, she opted for injections to quell the pain.

Upon her return to the camp, she had to again give a trial to show if she was capable to the chief coach at the National camp who had doubts over her fitness.

So five days after her injection, Swapna - who by now could work around the injury - did a trial for long jump, javelin and 100 hurdles and showed herself to have not skipped a beat.

At the Games Village she would again tackle the demons, this time in the form of a toothache for which she needed antibiotics and painkillers to even compete. 

"In this condition she won," says her coach proudly.

She picked up 6026 points for the gold medal and was noticeably wincing and holding her cheek during the high jump and shot put events. But at the end of it all, she was smiling. Yes, she won the gold but more than that, she won in life. 

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