JAKARTA — Swapna Barman’s claim to fame before landing in Jakarta was as the athlete with 12 toes but the 21-year-old will return home having forged a new identity after winning India’s first Asian Games gold in the heptathlon.
The extra width of Barman’s feet, each containing six toes, and her struggle to find suitable footwear have often impacted the performance of an athlete who came fifth on her Asian Games debut in Incheon four years ago.
Compounding her problems in Jakarta was a throbbing toothache and Barman, her stocky frame already ravaged by ankle, knee and back injuries over the last year, competed with a taped-up jaw at the Gelora Bung Karno Stadium.
Her march to victory was completed with a personal best score of 6,026 points and Barman hopes the focus will now shift from her unusual feet to her breakthrough performance.
“I hope so,” Barman, her jaw still taped, told Reuters in an interview outside the GBK Stadium on Thursday.
“After all, nobody from India won a heptathlon gold at the Asian Games before. I hope people will now remember me more for winning the gold than for my toes. It’s like a new identity for me.”
The transformation was not served on a platter, however, her coach Subhas Sarkar said.
“She had to work really hard to come this far,” he told Reuters. “She had to overcome massive odds — be it her frame, feet or the spate of injuries. In the end, the hard work paid off.”
For Barman, the priority now is to heal her body with an eye on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“This is the most important thing for me now,” she added.
“I have had a long battle with injuries and these need to be fixed immediately. There’s no real big event next year. I have plenty of time before Tokyo.”
Once she has rested and recovered, Barman plans to target the Indian national record of 6,211 points, set by JJ Shobha 14 years ago.
“I felt I was below par in certain events but still posted my personal best,” Barman admitted.
“I was once punished for a lane infringement in Doha. That still plays on my mind. That’s why I did not go flat out in 200m.
“I’ll go for a new national record. There is room for improvement in all seven events. I can be better, particularly at 200m, shot put, high jump and 800m.”
Barman’s pursuit has kept her away from her family — her father became paralysed in 2013 and her mother used to work at a tea garden — for long periods.
“I have not been home for nearly a year. I want to go home. It’s been really long.”