NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Pursuing a largely unrewarding Olympic sport in a cricket-obsessed country requires adjustments but Indian heptathlete Swapna Barman has taken it to a new level - squeezing six toes in each shoe designed for five.
Born with six toes in each foot, the 18-year-old from a poor family in Jalpaiguri in the east Indian state of West Bengal has been forced to run, jump and throw wearing shoes that have affected more than aiding her performance.
“Even after all these years, it still hurts every time I put my shoes on,” Barman told Reuters in an interview. “It’s worse during the running events. I try to adjust but my toes curl under pressure.”
Her lamentation sounds almost an anachronism in an era when athletes are trying to get the best out of modern sports science and would not compromise on the sports equipments they use.
She paused when asked if she tried customized shoes.
“I did try a pair from a local manufacturer. It did not last two days.”
Coach Subhash Sarkar, who discovered her and remains her greatest motivation, explains what a reticent Barman would not.
“She is not a star athlete for whom Adidas or Nike will design special shoes with precise pressure points, perfect grip and other specifications,” Sarkar said. “They’ll do that for a star who will tweet a picture and sales would immediately soar.
“We did try some local manufacturers but those were really substandard. The grip was poor and the pressure points were all wrong.”
Barman, currently sweating it out at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) center in Patiala, has naturally been left with no other choice but to train with the pain and that’s not the only problem plaguing the Asian Games-bound athlete.
Even the regular shoes are a luxury for the teenager whose father is paralysed and elder brother a daily wager.
She needs seven pair of shoes for a heptathlon meet and that means around 56,000 Indian rupees ($930), calculates Sarkar.
“She has got proper shoes for shot put and 800 metres but I’m afraid she may have to compete in other events wearing substandard locally made shoes.”
Some local manufacturers have offered to design special shoes for her but Sarkar says excellence needs more than just goodwill.
“I have respect for their emotions but honestly a lot of science and technology go into the making of modern sports footwear and they are not really known for that,” said Sarkar.
Barman would have to “adjust” until she lands a job, reckons her coach at the SAI center in Kolkata.
Interestingly, Sarkar had initially rejected Barman, who originally began as a high-jumper.
“I was looking for jumpers and even though people spoke highly of her, I thought she was too short to have any future in high-jump.
“Later I noticed she jumps with a tremendous burst of power, which got me thinking about channelling that power to another event for better results.”
Sarkar introduced her to long jump and the throw events and was happy with what he saw in her obedient five-foot-three-inch student.
“We toyed with heptathlon last year and after two month’s practice, she scored 4435 points to finish second in Youth Nationals. It was only this year that she turned a full-fledged heptathlete and scored 5400 to qualify for the Asian Games.”
Sarkar has set Barman a target of 5500 points in Incheon. In the last Asian Games in Guangzhou, compatriot GG Pramila scored 5415 to win a bronze.
As she talks of her first major international event later this month, the word “adjust” resurfaces.
“I don’t think about the problems anymore. I have to adjust to whatever is available. Sir has set a target and my job is to practice and try and achieve that.”
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly