Why Hima Das is the darling of India's athletics fans
Hima Das was an unknown entity when the youngster was unexpectedly picked as part of the Indian athletics contingent for the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
The then 18-year-old Indian sprinter had always wanted to play football but her raw speed while running across the muddy rice fields of Assam convinced a school coach that she should try out athletics.
And it turned out to be a career-making decision. Hima Das, with barely any training under her belt, won the 100m bronze at the state meet and subsequently made it to the finals of the Junior National Championships.
Impressive showings at the U-18 nationals, the Asian and World Youth Championships in 2017, where she narrowly missed out on bronze in the latter, convinced the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) to pick the athlete for the senior national camp.
Despite achieving all her success in the 100 and 200m sprints, the coaches decided to switch Hima to run the quarter-mile to give her a better shot at international success. This turned out to be a masterstroke.
At the Federation Cup in Patiala in March 2018, Hima Das comfortably won the 400m gold in 51.97 seconds, breaking the 52-second qualifying mark for the Commonwealth Games later that year.
The girl from the remote village of Dhing in Assam, who was originally picked in the national camp for the Asian Games in mid-2018, found herself fast-tracked to the national team for the Commonwealth Games in April itself.
Though she could not clinch a medal on her international debut, Hima Das improved on her personal best timings in the heats and the finals of the 400m at the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast.
Despite finishing sixth in the 400m at the Commonwealth Games, Hima Das’ achievements were to see a fascinating turnaround.
Gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships
July 12, 2018, marked the day that Hima Das first showcased to the world her innate ability and fired the imagination of Indian fans thirsty of finding a world-class track-and-field star.
History was created at Tampere, Finland when Hima Das won gold in the 400 metres at the IAAF World U20 Championships, clocking 51.46 seconds.
Running in lane four, the Indian sprinter was trailing Romanian Andrea Miklos but produced a brilliant surge of speed at the final bend to power past her opponents and win in fine style.
It made her the first Indian athlete to win a medal at any track event at the World Athletics Championships, junior or senior, and only the second Indian to win gold after javelin-thrower Neeraj Chopra had done so in 2016.
The achievement drew high praise, with Bollywood movie stars like Amitabh Bachchan taking to social media to celebrate a truly remarkable feat. The ‘Dhing Express’ became a name known all over India.
“Watching Hima fly through the race and win gold in Finland was one of the most unbelievable moments of my life,” said Indian track-and-field legend PT Usha.
“At this age, she has exhibited great courage and confidence. I didn’t see any sign of nervousness during the event,” added the former sprinter and Olympian.
The sprinter from the state of Assam would soon add to her burgeoning reputation.
Triple Asian Games medallist and Hima Das’ records
Expectations were high from Hima Das at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta and the Indian sprinter did not disappoint.
In the 400m individual event, she created a new national record of 51 seconds in the heats to sail into the finals, where she would again shift to a higher gear.
Hima Das broke her own 400m national record within a day as she ran the final in 50.79 seconds, and won the silver.
The Asian Games had more joy for her – Hima Das won gold in the 4x100m women’s relay alongside MR Poovamma, Sarita Gaikwad and VK Vismaya and would create further history as she was also part of the gold-medal winning 4x100m mixed relay, with Muhammed Anas, Arokia Rajiv and MR Poovamma. This was the first time a mixed relay was held.
“I don't show tension and nervousness but I know how fast my heartbeat races before a race.”
The momentous feats had firmly made Hima Das the darling of the nation and the Indian government conferred her the Arjuna Award that year.
The golden month in 2019
After such a terrific international debut year, the next target for Hima Das was to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.
Hima's pursuit of that goal did not begin well in 2019. At the Asian Athletics Championships in April last year, Hima Das pulled up during her 400m heats on the opening day with a back injury.
It put her out of action for close to four months.
But in July 2019, Hima Das roared back to form with a staggering haul of five 200m gold medals in less than a month.
The first one arrived at the Poznan Athletics Grand Prix in Poland and she would follow it up by winning another gold at the Kutno Athletics Meet just five days later.
Barely a week after that, Hima Das won a third-consecutive gold at the Kladno Athletics Meet in the Czech Republic and added a fourth to her collection at the Tabor Athletics Meet.
A fifth gold medal would follow at the Mezinarodni Atleticky Mitink as Hima Das capped off a sensational 20-day period on her return from injury.
The European events may not have seen top-class competition but for Hima Das returning from injury, the medals gave her the confidence and belief that she was going to be a potent force for India at Tokyo.
With the Tokyo Olympics postponed to 2021, Hima Das now has more time to prepare and qualify for her maiden Olympics.
Coming off a rehab, after suffering a back injury in September last year, Hima is slowly hitting the strides while her growing legion of fans keep their fingers crossed.