From rice fields to track and field: The story of Indian sprinter Hima Das

The 'Dhing Express' has chugged along the global athletics map, having won key medals and national glory.

Sprinter Hima Das' first coach was her father, a rice farmer.

So, when they used to go out running at 4am during her formative years, they used to sprint through paddy fields.

Later in the day, it was in those very rice fields, she helped her father out by ploughing the land.

Her village near the Assamese town of Dhing didn't have a running track and young Hima Das had to make do with what she had.

But in that little village, the seeds of athlete Hima Das were also sown.

While her interest veered towards football early on in her life, she was soon made to realise that her career goals may not be fulfilled if she chose only a single path.

So from football, she detached herself a bit to forge a career in running. All the while helping her father out as well.

"I loved to play football. In fact, I wanted to become a football player," she told LiveMint. "I even played for a club in Assam as a striker.

"But I also wanted to represent India at the international level and did not know the future of football to be honest. So I was trying to figure out what to do."

It paid off. In her early teens, she managed to win a gold medal in a 100m sprint in a local race - the first of what would be many.

Some five years later in 2018, the Indian sprinter would become the first Indian athlete to win gold at the IAAF World U20 Championships.

A career-defining 2018

Nicknamed the ‘Dhing Express’, Hima Das made her international debut at the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast, Australia after she had won the 400m race in the Federation Cup back home earlier in the year.

For someone who didn’t even know what the Commonwealth Games was two years prior, it was a commendable achievement as she clocked her then personal best of 51.32 to finish sixth.

Her spirited performance set her on course to a very special gold only three months later.

Running the 400m event in the World U-20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, Hima Das clocked 51.46 seconds and made history by becoming the first-ever Indian sprinter to win a world track event.

But the humble Hima Das didn’t even realise what she had achieved until she found that the nation was talking about her on social media.

"The first day was nothing special. I ran, got my medal and went to sleep," she told The Quint. "The following day when I logged on to Facebook on my mobile and I saw only my photos.

"Then it hit me. I got a bit emotional as well."

For Hima Das, she needed to keep her emotions in check as more accolades were coming her way.

At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta late in August, Hima Das qualified for the 400m final by setting a national record at 51.00 seconds. In the final, she bettered her streak by going under 51 seconds, clocking 50.79 seconds and bagging the silver medal.

There was more glory in store for the Indian sprinter in Jakarta. She went on to win gold in the 4x100 women’s relay race and another gold in the mixed relay category held for the first time at the Asian Games.

To recognise what had been a momentous year, the Indian government conferred her with the Arjuna Award to mark her achievement.

Five gold medals in a month

Hima Das continued her rich vein of form in 2019, particularly in the month of July.

She won two gold medals in the 200m category in Poland, first at the Poznan Athletics Grand Prix and later at the Kutno Athletics Meet.

On July 13, she won the 200m gold at the Kladno Athletics Meet in the Czech Republic with a time of 23.43 seconds, only to best that four days later at the Tabor Athletics Meet clocking 23.25 seconds.

She rounded off her medal rush with a fifth gold in just 19 days, winning the 400-metre event in Nove Mesto. Now even the biggest names in Indian sport were sitting up and taking notice.

‘All athletes think about the Olympics’

However, her journey at the international stage hasn’t been all rosy. A series of meets just ahead of the 2019 World Athletics Championships saw Hima Das injure her back and miss out on the biennial event in Doha. 

Later, though she tried her best to return to the track, recurring injuries sidelined the Indian talent creating a roadblock in her aim to achieve her goal of competing at the Games.

“All athletes think about the Olympics. Even I do,” she told the ANI agency. “Life as an athlete is very short. You never know when you get injured.”

However, the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics seems to be a blessing in disguise for Hima Das. A lengthy lay-off should see the ‘Dhing Express’ make a swift return once the action resumes in the coming months. 

There's perhaps a lot more to come from Hima Das and a lot more to know about her beyond the rice fields she grew up around. But for her, the bit about her personal life can wait.

"I will tell my story, what I am and where I have come from, when the time is right and after I have achieved my goals," she told India Today. "Now, it's time to work."

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