Yes. Even while I was a junior athlete my first senior competition was the open nationals in Chennai in 2017. I won gold in the 200m recording my personal best timing back then. That is how I got selected for the India camp for the first time and my journey began. Chennai is my lucky charm.
It has been a tough few years but the smile on your face seems to have finally returned…
I had been feeling low for quite some time due to my injuries. After the back injury, missing the Olympics qualification by a whisker due to a hamstring tear, going through COVID. Despite the grade 2 hamstring tear, I decided to run once during the Olympic trials. It was a mistake that aggravated my injury. Those were testing times for me. I didn’t go home but decided to go to Guwahati and work with a physio. For the next six months, I was confined to my room, working on my injury recovery.
You haven’t spoken much about your battle with COVID-19…
Just days after joining the camp after my recovery, I contracted COVID. It was so bad that I honestly thought I was going to die. On the fourth or fifth day, I woke up gasping for air in the middle of the night. I opened all the windows and unlatched the door so that no one would have to break the door to enter if I die. It’s something very emotional, not many know about it.
On the second day, my taste, smell and appetite had returned, miraculously for a couple of hours. It was like magic. The next day it went away again and took another two months for normalcy to return. I had lost a lot of weight and my muscles lost strength. When I resumed practice, I wasn’t able to run properly, I had breathing issues. My lungs were affected. The doctors also asked me not to exert myself.
After your recovery from COVID, you attended camps in Thiruvananthapuram and Turkey. How did it go?
Two months later, I showed signs of improvement on the track. After training in Thiruvananthapuram, I flew to Turkey with the team. I had a great time training there, the weather was ideal. This time the coach gave me additional responsibility – I was asked to lead the relay team members. We worked a lot on our coordination and baton exchange.
How did you handle the overnight stardom after your U-20 Worlds medal in Finland?
I didn’t expect it nor was I prepared to handle it. I think that medal changed Indian athletics and brought a lot of attention to the sport. There are drawbacks of being popular, now I can’t go anywhere I feel like. When I was in Chennai in 2017 I roamed around the streets freely. I like shopping but it’s not easy now because people recognise me at stores. So I just sit in my room and shop online. In Guwahati, I sometimes sneak out for meals and chai but they always refuse to take money. I have to literally force them.
I receive a lot of love from supporters wherever I go, I just want to request people to come to the stadium and cheer for me and the other athletes. I want people to fill the stadiums like they do at cricket matches. After all, athletics is the mother of all sports.
How did you handle the disappointment of missing out on the Tokyo Olympics?
My team and the Athletics Federation of India kept me motivated. The federation treats all athletes with a lot of care. Sachin (Tendulkar) sir told me, ‘that there will be ups and downs in life but a true athlete keeps fighting’. Whenever I felt a little low, I went on short trips with family, close friends, and my coach to someplace quiet.
What is the difference between the 18-year-old you and now?
There have been a lot of changes but I still have the heart of an 18-year-old. Responsibilities have increased. Earlier I would eat whatever I got but now I follow a strict diet. I have become more disciplined: having meals on time, sleeping early, etc.
How has your life transformed since the Jr. Worlds medal? Thanks to your sporting achievements you have access to better facilities like stays at good hotels.
It doesn’t matter where I stay. I can even rest on a pavement, not kidding. In the past, I have traveled to national meets sleeping on the floor next to the toilets on trains. Two days, sometimes three. I have had to travel from Assam to Gujarat for meets without reservation. I haven’t changed much, even now when I go to a big store, I hope I get a good offer or discount (laughs). Sports has given me everything so I have to respect it. Now I can’t go and rest anywhere I like, or my body will ask me questions. I need to stay at a decent place with a good atmosphere.
A good part of your teenage life has been spent training in camps. Do you miss your friends or the lifestyle they live?
I am actually a very reserved person. I don’t like to be in a loud environment or amid a lot of hustle and bustle. I like to stay in my room, analyze my game, watch movies on my phone and listen to music. I like cooking as well.
How was it switching to sprints from 400m?
The injury gave me a lot of time and I have gradually eased into sprints. And I was a sprinter earlier. When I left football for athletics, I started off with 100m, 200m, and long jump. It is not frustrating to switch to sprints, the main motive is to do what is best for my back injury. Back injuries don’t heal so quickly, my L4 and L5 regions have niggles. I can’t put too much load, even at the gym I am very careful.
Will we see you back in 400m?
Let’s see, if I can get fit by the next Asian Games that would be great. It’s (400m) not over yet and will never be. 400m is a tough but a good event for Indians. If we push a little we can win medals at Asian Games. I still have a year, so I will gradually try and hopefully, my back won’t trouble me.
Post your failure to qualify for the Olympics a lot of people said harsh things to you. Did that affect you?
Those who want to say things are most welcome to but I am just focused on my work. I know what I do. I have a nice joint family where I grew up, but for the last six years, I have stayed away for training. It’s not for some kind of enjoyment. I would welcome those people to come and watch me train, they will leave with tears in their eyes. The training is so intense that throwing up isn’t uncommon and sometimes there’s a little blood in it too. It’s not a big deal for athletes but for those who don’t know the drill, it will change your outlook.
What has sports given to your family?
I wanted to clarify this. A lot of what is shown by the media about my family isn’t true. Some have said that we were so poor that we couldn’t afford three meals, but that’s not true at all. My uncle retired from a govt job, my aunt was a head teacher. My father runs a nice farm and we have some land. All this before I came into sports. People should come and see for themselves before they write stuff about my family. If they say Hima was poor, I will agree but If they say my family was poor I won’t. Let me participate in the Olympics once, then I will take you to my hometown, show you around, and tell you my whole story.