The alchemist behind India's heptathlon gold

FILE PHOTO: Athletics - 2018 Asian Games - Women's Heptathlon - GBK Main Stadium, Jakarta, Indonesia - August 30, 2018. Gold medalist Swapna Barman of India during the medal ceremony. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

By Amlan Chakraborty

JAKARTA (Reuters) - As she climbed down the steps at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, Swapna Barman, India's newly-minted Asian Games heptathlon champion, handed over her gold medal to a bearded man and bent down to touch his feet.

"It's quite heavy," Subhas Sarkar said once she had moved on, weighing the piece of yellow metal in his palm before unzipping his rucksack and stuffing it inside.

Minutes earlier, Sarkar had been in the media tribune, capturing the proudest moment of his coaching career on a modest mobile phone as Barman stood on the podium shrouded in India's tri-colour flag with the gold medal around her neck.

It had taken seven rollercoaster years for the combined talent of the 21-year-old athlete and her 55-year-old mentor to forge India's first heptathlon gold in the continental Games.

"Sir made a lot of sacrifice for me," a respectful Barman, who won the gold with a career best 6,026 points, told Reuters.

"Just before the Games, he left his family to spend a month in Patiala to oversee my preparations at the training camp. He has so many trainees under him but I always got special attention.

"I guess I've given him a lot of stress too. He has developed diabetes and I'm partially responsible for that."

Sarkar laughed off that suggestion but admitted it had not been easy mentoring his talented but temperamental protege.

"She has given me many sleepless nights for sure. I lost count how many fights we've had over the years," he said with a gentle laugh.

"And it got pretty serious on a couple of occasions, when she quit training. In 2015, she left for home and returned only after three months."

He's headmasterly and she's headstrong and Sarkar reckons it's a miracle that they stuck together.

"She is extrovert, loves to eat out and likes to be on social media. My fear is these might distract her. Sparks naturally fly," he said added with a wry smile.


A Sports Authority of India (SAI) coach posted in Kolkata, Sarkar discovered Barman, then pursuing the high jump, in his home town of Jalpaiguri in 2011. His first impression was she was too short to be a jumper.

There was also the matter of Barman's feet, each boasting an extra toe, which would mean a life-long struggle to find suitable shoes for a girl whose father pulled a rickshaw and whose mother picked tea on a plantation.

It was after learning that Barman had won the gold in a national inter-school meet that Sarkar asked her to move to the SAI hostel in Kolkata.

"She improved her personal best rapidly at the hostel, from 1.53 metres to 1.78 in just two years," he recalled. "But then I realised she'd never grow tall enough to be a quality jumper."

Not that Sarkar did not try to remove that handicap, making her hang from a bar, pop growth pills and do special stretches for those extra inches.

He then pulled her leg, literally.

"I had four persons - two holding her legs and two her arms - mildly pulling her for 10 seconds at a stretch. I tried everything I could," Sarkar said.

"There was no guarantee these things would work but we had to take a chance. I don't know if it helped, but she grew eight inches during her years in the hostel."


Once the realisation dawned on him that none of this was going to work, Sarkar made her switch to heptathlon in 2013.

Barman responded well and within one year, she had qualified for the Incheon Games, finishing fifth on her Asian Games debut.

"She always had that fire and part of my dream came true here. If she can stay healthy and add a bit more discipline, she can do even better," Sarkar said.

For that, he reckoned, Barman would need to make some tough lifestyle choices.

"You can't grow as an athlete if you don't make those sacrifices. That's what I've been telling her," he said.

"I understand a girl of her age would want to socialise and enjoy life. But athletes have a very short shelf-life. Mobile phone and social media can wait."

That message was clearly not getting through to Barman yet, however, as she busily checked her messages of congratulation.

(Reporting by Amlan Chakraborty in Jakarta; editing by Nick Mulvenney)