“She rarely knows who she is contesting against, never has any clues about how big a name other contestant in the adjoining track is, neither does she bother herself when others are racing past him in the initial phase of the race, Nipon Das, the coach of India’s first ever gold medallist in an international championship Hima Das had said about his prodigy when she qualified for the Commonwealth Games ahead of Olympian and former Asian Games gold medallist MR Poovamma.
Her taking more than 52 seconds in the heats, when her personal best remains 51.13, had gotten Nipon Das worried even though she was easily finishing first. But she asked him to relax as she was conserving her energy for the finals.
In the finals of the World Under-20 on Thursday, the 18-year-old was behind three of her competitors with just 100 metres to the finishing line. As the race began, the commentator urged spectators to “keep a very close eye on Hima Das in lane four.” “Hima Das has gone for a more conservative approach,” another commentator said when the Indian was mentioned for the second time after approximately 150 metres. “Das at the moment has got a lot to do,” shouted the commentator with about 150 metres to go as the teenager found herself at the fourth position.
“But here comes Hima Das,” he said excitedly with merely 80 metres to go. “The Indian is surging, she can see the line, she can see history,” the commentator gasped. Eight more seconds later, history had indeed been written.
Till 2016, the youngest of five children of a rice farmer Ronjit Das and Jomali had no intention of being an athlete. In fact, playing in the mud fields of her village Dhing, she dreamt of representing India in football. Her idols even then were international footballers. It was Das, her Physical Education teacher who suggested the youngster to take up an individual sport. “I never knew anyone who had her raw speed," ESPN quoted Nipon, who took her to the state championship in Guwahati where she won a bronze without any training or proper practice.
She did not look back. Hima reached the finals of the Junior National Championships in Coimbatore, but could do little against well-trained, well-equipped girls from other states.
Apprehensive that their talented trainee would slide into oblivion, Nipon Das and Nabajit Malakar, who had accompanied the Assam team to Coimbatore, convinced her parents to send their youngest child for training to Guwahati.
"I just gave her basic training and she just kept improving," Das told ESPN as within a month, the results began to show. After winning a bronze in 100m and a silver in 200m National School Championship, she again won the bronze and silver in the two events.
She got a senior national camp call up while she was still training and succeeding in the shorter 100 and 200m races, as she even won a gold at the Asian Games test event in Jakarta in February this year. But coaches at the national camp felt Hima's future lay in 400m race, the one considered to be among the most challenging track events. It not only tests athlete’s speed, but also their endurance and tactics. After 350 metres, lactic acid builds up in the body and makes it difficult for the runner to run the next 50 metres, say the physios and coaches.
She, however, finished sixth in the Commonwealth Games in Australia. She returned determined to do better. “This is something you don't see in too many athletes. She improves her performance with every race she runs,” Nabajit Malakar had told ESPN before the Commonwealth Games.
On Thursday she did not quite do that, clocking 0.33 second more than her career best time of 51.13 seconds. But her coach is confident as she aims at clocking a career best of 49 seconds soon. If, as and when she does it, India may get yet another gold at another international event.