How Asian Games gold medallist Swapna Barman proved everyone wrong
They sneered that she was ‘going to Jakarta as a tourist’, says her coach. Barman opens up on her temper, her gold, and not looking like a heptathleteUpdated: Sep 22, 2018 09:44 IST
Swapna Barman is a walking, talking, Asian Games gold medal-winning example of how wrong some first impressions can be. Based on three interactions over five days, Barman also seems like someone who might not mind trading stardom for being the girl with an infectious smile. Not unlike Anna Scott in the film Notting Hill. And with a temper just as foul.
“I have just finished an interview, why don’t you all come tomorrow,” she says when we meet for the second time at the eastern centre of the Sports Authority of India (SAI); her mood mirroring the sullen conditions after a heavy spell of thunder, lightning and rain with the promise of more to follow. But since we have come at the appointed hour, she trudges back to the pink hostel building to change her red top and deep blue denim shorts for something more photoshoot-worthy. The flip-flops she refuses to swap for sneakers.
Barman’s mood lifts as she is shown the frames she has posed for. A particular shot pleases her and, as dusk bleeds into night, the superwoman smiles. Barman is one in every sense of the word. You can’t be the best heptathlete in the continent — a first for India — otherwise. Period. It is an event spread over two days with your skills tested in seven disciplines ranging from sprints and hurdles to jumps and throws.
At every step, Barman has broken stereotypes. She has had to get used to the pain and discomfort of fitting 12 toes into shoes meant for 10, and that’s worse than wearing footwear one size small. The problem is compounded for a heptathlete because different events need different types of shoes. Heptathletes are sinewy — think Soma Biswas, JJ Shobha and Sushmita Singha Roy, her famous predecessors in the sport; Barman is stocky. “She was the smallest in the field in Jakarta,” says Subash Sarkar, Barman’s trainer, life coach, support system and the punching bag she is wobbly without, on joining the conversation.
Barman began as a high jumper — “I started it following my brother Amit who is three years older, and kept at it on being encouraged by my father Panchanan,” she says — and aced an all-India school competition in 2011. High jumpers are long-limbed, Barman has big thighs.
Weeks before last month’s Asian Games, Barman was battling a knee problem, her back was dodgy and she felt pain in her lower abdomen. At the Netaji Subhas National Institute of Sports in Patiala, where the preparatory camp for the Games was held, they sneered when they weren’t passing snide comments. “Swapna is going to Jakarta as a tourist,” is what Sarkar says he would hear. Self-doubt crept in and Barman was willing to trade months of hard work that, according to Sarkar, saw her regularly log 6000 points (she won gold with 6026) in training, for a passage to Kolkata and then to home in Jalpaiguri. In Jakarta, she had a tooth infection that needed antibiotics, cost her a day’s training and meant she couldn’t eat well.
“The knee still hurts when I am walking... Injuries I can deal with because pain is part of an athlete’s life. But what stung was the negative vibes from people who didn’t know what I was going through. I would cry. Then, I would think of my parents… I would speak to them and they would tell me, ‘you can’. That would always lift my spirits,” says Barman.
It takes seven to eight years to master the heptathlon and you are really good at it after about nine or ten, says Sarkar. Barman’s been doing it for five and lost nearly two years to injury.
So when Barman says her gold on August 29, also hockey legend Dhyan Chand’s birthday and celebrated as National Sports Day in India, still feels like a dream, you understand. “I keep asking myself, have I really done something incredible? And then I tell myself, okay I have won an Asian Games gold and that is it… I am still the same.”
By ‘same’, Barman means the girl who lives in a hostel that she says can never be home. It was on May 21, 2012, that Barman, then 15, came to the SAI centre in Kolkata. “Ma came to help me settle in. When she was going, I broke down; I just couldn’t stop crying. Then I saw girls younger than me were here and I told myself, if they can, why can’t I?,” she says.
‘Ma’ is Basana Barman, the woman who would often do double shifts plucking leaves at a tea garden, after her husband suffered a stroke, to provide for her family of two sons and two daughters, the youngest of whom has now made them a household name.
So, why does this not feel like home? “Well, I fly into a rage very easily and hence don’t talk to too many people. That is why I miss home. Sometimes, I cry to Ma and I can hear her crying over the phone, but then I tell myself, I am here for a reason.”
It is good, she says, that between training, recovery sessions, tending to injuries, washing your clothes and resting, there is not much time left over. “No time to even have a boyfriend. That can wait till I am done with sport.” When she does get time, Barman says she keeps a diary and listens to music, the Bhawaia being her favourite. With songs written mainly in Kamtapuri, Bhawaia is a form of folk music popular among Rajbongshis in northern West Bengal. Barman can more than hold a tune but even though we don’t ask, she says ‘I am not going to sing now’.
Sarkar’s getting her to SAI started a journey that is perhaps halfway from its end. They met for the first time around Durga Puja in 2011. “I am from Jalpaiguri and on a visit home some of my students [Sarkar has been a coach at SAI since 1992] asked me to take a look at this young high jumper. My first impression wasn’t that impressive since she does not have the body type of a high jumper. Later that year, she won a schools’ competition in Ludhiana and I was told by Samir Das, who had put Barman through the paces earlier, to take her to SAI.
“He insisted, telling me that otherwise she would end up like the rest of them, perhaps become a daily-wage earner. I thought that if she is already winning medals, clearing 1.57m with rudimentary training, if nothing else, she could be a national junior-level competitor. And that is how she came here,” says Sarkar.
The switch to heptathlon happened in 2013. “With her frame, regularly clearing 1.90m or more, the kind required to win international medals [the high jump gold in Jakarta went at 1.96m], would be difficult. So I thought, why not put her in an event where she can win silver or bronze at the Asian Games. Even when she was just doing high jump, I tested her ability in long jump, saw that her arms are strong and felt a medal would be possible if we could put in three or four years of work. That is how this started,” says Sarkar.
Barman says trying out six new events didn’t intimidate her. “It was a lot of work but I liked it. Because it also had Sir focusing more on me than his other trainees; me, the short, squat one. That felt good,” she says.
“What helped is her ability to grasp things quickly. In three months, she made rapid progress in the javelin. The same with shot put and long jump. Then, in 2014, I saw that 5482 points fetched an Asian Games bronze in heptathlon,” says Sarkar. That was also Barman’s first experience of the Games. She finished fifth, on 5178 points, but Sarkar knew they were on course.
For someone who didn’t know what the Asian Games were when she started high jump while at Patkata Primary School near her home in Patkata, about 7 km from Jalpaiguri; for someone who took to sport because it could get her a job and her family a better life; for someone whose home is still a tin shack, the tin replacing straw bale walls not long ago, Barman’s come a long way.
She says she has stopped her father from working — he used to drive a cycle van — even though he has recovered from the stroke he suffered in 2009 because, “I am a big girl now, I earn.”
“My parents have struggled through life. They worked very hard to bring us up. I want them to take it easy now. I want to provide for them. This is my responsibility,” she says.
Barman is weighing job offers from the Indian Railways and the West Bengal government but says she is in no hurry. “I could have got a job in the sports quota a lot earlier but Sir didn’t allow me, saying that taking up a job usually leads to the focus shifting. Also, I now get money from the TOP [Target Olympic Podium] Scheme,” she says. TOPS is a programme run by the union sports ministry to support potential medal-winners in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics.
So what now? Working on my temper, she says, winding up the media interaction on the day of her arrival here. Barman’s short fuse has led to run-ins with Sarkar and she even left SAI once. Healing injuries is priority too, says Barman, when we meet for the third time, at a felicitation; she’s averaging one event every day since getting here on September 7.
The Olympics is a target she hasn’t started dreaming about yet. “If Sir shows me the way, I will,” she says.