Swapna Barman of India celebrates winning the heptathlon at the Asian Games in August. (Mast Irham/Shutterstock)

Swapna Barman endured 21 years of pain to reach the pinnacle of the heptathlon.

She was born with 12 toes, six on each foot, but races in regular shoes. Each step of her races and training can be painful. It has led to other injuries, including a bulging disk and consistent ankle and knee trouble.

“Right from the time I was a kid, I’ve never been able to find a pair that fits me,” she recently told ESPN. “When I run in shoes, it hurts. When I wear spikes, it is even more painful.”

Still, she won gold medals at the 2017 Asian Athletic Championships and the 2018 Asian Games, and she became one of the stars of the Indian government’s “Target Olympic Podium Scheme,” created to push for more medals in international competition. She was so far ahead in the 2017 event that she claimed the gold medal even after collapsing during the closing race, the 800 meters.

Her pain might soon have a solution. Friday, the government-backed Sports Authority of India said it is working with Adidas to make custom shoes for the 21-year-old Barman — shoes that fit all 12 of her toes. (She needs four pairs of shoes for the heptathlon’s seven events, according to Agence France-Presse.)

“After coming to know about Swapna’s case, the Sports Minister immediately directed us from Jakarta [site of the Asian Games] to get customized shoes made for her. We have taken up the matter with Adidas, and they have agreed to provide the footwear,” Sports Authority Director General Neelam Kapur told the Times of India.

Barman’s coach confirmed to the newspaper that the Sports Authority had contacted him, requesting measurements of the athlete’s feet to provide the shoe company.


Barman prepares to wear her track shoes before a practice session in Kolkata in 2014. (Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters)

Barman grew up interested in soccer and kabaddi, an Indian game of team wrestling, she told ESPN, but took up track and field when her father, a rickshaw puller, thought it someday could help her get a job. At 11, she began training at a stadium five miles from her house.

“My father would take me on his rickshaw so I didn’t need to walk,” she said.

She started as a high jumper, but a coach from the Sports Authority suggested she switch to heptathlon — which consists of the 100-meter hurdles, 200 meters, 800 meters, shot put, high jump, long jump and javelin — which is better suited to shorter competitors.

The move was physically painful, but Barman saw quick success. She was the youngest competitor in the heptathlon in the 2014 Asian Games, where she finished fifth. In 2018, she dominated the field for the gold medal while fighting a string of injuries.

“Every time she ran, the movement hurt her. If it was any other athlete but her, she would have quit,” said her coach, Subhash Sarkar.

Now, Barman told Humans of Bombay, she has another goal in mind.

“Yes, I have 12 toes. Yes, I faced challenges. But, no, this is not a ‘struggle’ story — my life has been happy, and every day I thank God for giving me so much,” she said. “I’m coming for you, Olympics — this girl has her eye on another gold for India!”

“I’ve led a very happy life — I’m the youngest of four siblings and we’ve been lucky to have the best parents. My…

Posted by Humans of Bombay on Wednesday, September 12, 2018

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