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A brief biography, till 2018
A good high jumper, Swapna was among the favourites and when she produced an impressive 50.63m with the javelin, the penultimate event, she went into the 800m, the final event of Asian Games (800m), with an advantage.
She knelt down and kissed the track when she realised that she had made history. Her teammate, this season’s Asian leader Purnuma Hembram (5837), was fourth.
How Swapna almost pulled out of the Asiad
All night, her jaw throbbed with pain. It was so excruciating that Swapna Barman considered pulling out on the final day of the Asian Games heptathlon, where she trailed Wang Qingling of China. The gum infection — too many chocolates, she said — made the task of 32 points seem a mighty ordeal.
The 21-year-old daughter of a rickshaw-puller and a tea-picker won India’s first heptathlon gold in the Asian Games, working her way through the seven events spread out over two days. Barman, with a bandage on her jaw and her now-famous 12 toes encased in special shoes, took on the pain and Qingling during the last three events of the heptathlon — long jump, javelin and 800m. She had completed the other four events — 100m hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200m.
For the Rajbongshi girl from Bengal’s Jalpaiguri district, winning has always been a journey through pain. Her feet would not fit into regular shoes, but she had to squash her toes in, the pain exacerbated when she landed after jumps. The family struggled to fund her sports training, until scouts spotted her and she picked up scholarships, including sponsorship from Rahul Dravid.
Cricket physio Gloster had helped Swapna
Swapna’s father Panchanan Barman has been bedridden after suffering two strokes, and her mother works as a maid and a tea-picker. Barman herself has battled injures, chronic back pain, physiotherapy sessions, and the aching jaw in Jakarta.
But injury remained a part and parcel of her career. Swapna at one stage even thought of leaving the sport after being down with severe back pain. In October last year, Swapna had consulted John Gloster, the physiotherapist who worked with the Indian cricket team and who played a major part in helping Sachin Tendulkar recover from his back pain. Although Gloster suggested surgery, Swapan decided to delay it and aim for her much-cherished Asian Games medal.
The pain had struck early. As a youngster, her rickshaw-puller father Panchanan Barman father bought her a sports shoe for the first time after she was selected for her school team (Kaliaganj High School) in Kaliaganj outside Jalpaiguri. But that caused her a lot of discomfort as her toes would get pinched. Later she opted for a bigger-sized shoe and slowly got used to that.
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The sleepy township of Denguajhar near Jalpaiguri turned into a beehive of activity as the news of Swapna Barman winning the Asian Games heptathlon gold reached the place.
This was the first time that North Bengal came to rejoice success in a major international athletic event.
“Swapna has proved the faith we had on her ability ever since she joined our coaching system as a kid,” said the Jalpaiguri District Sports Association’s athletics secretary Ujjal Das Choudhury.
Harishankar Roy, who held the national record in men’s high jump for a considerable period of time, was the last big name from the region.
But Swapna’s feat set a new landmark for the region which has never witnessed a golden feat by anyone in a major international event.
“The credit for identifying her talent goes to Samir Das who spotted her capabililties first. It is sad that Samir is no more to see her realising the potential,” Das Choudhury said. Swapna’s success story also tells a lot about her determination and dedication. “Her father (Panchanan Barman) pulled a rickshaw on which she used come occasionally for training.
Winning with an extra toe in each leg
Many consider an extra finger or toe very lucky but for Swapna Barman, it is very painful. Swapna has an extra toe in each leg and that means she needs special spikes and special shoes.
“I don’t get shoes or spikes that fit my size, I’m wearing shoes made for people with five toes,” said Swapna who won the country’s first Asiad heptathlon gold medal. “Whenever I wear warm-up shoes it’s very painful, just imagine what sort of pain I must be going through when I wear these jumping spikes and sprinting spikes.”
Swapna took the pain in her stride and more too as she produced her career-best show. Swapna was a high jumper some five years ago but when she realised that she was not going to great heights, she turned to the heptathlon.