By Amlan Chakraborty
JAKARTA (Reuters) – When you are born with six toes on each foot like Indian heptathlete Swapna Barman, you cannot help being fussy about your footwear.
Fifth on her Asian Games debut as teenager in Incheon four years ago, the 21-year-old has been fretting about her shoes ahead of next week’s athletics competition in Jakarta.
“Ahead of the Games, my main worry is I’m not getting the right shoes for high jump,” she told Reuters from her training centre in the north Indian city of Patiala.
“I never had customised shoes and I’ve been managing with a model which is unfortunately no longer available in India. I still have an old pair of them and I’m going to use them in Jakarta.”
Athletics is a difficult pursuit in cricket-mad India, where Olympic sports survive largely on government grants and Barman’s unique feet have made the task doubly difficult for the girl from a poor family in the east Indian town of Jalpaiguri.
The locally manufactured shoes were no good, so Barman tried several brands before realising she would have to make do with standard-sized footwear.
The extra width of her feet means every landing is painful and the shoes do not last long either, but she has so far resisted the suggestion to have her extra digits surgically removed.
“It’s a problem and I think I may have to live with it for the rest of my life,” she said.
“Some people did suggest surgery to get rid of the extra toes but I’m not sure about it. Anyway, I’m now focusing on the Asian Games and will think about all it later.”
Her coach, Subhas Sarkar, told Reuters the search for footwear had been fruitless.
“These little things matter. Having six toes is a big disadvantage when you are wearing standard shoes,” he said.
“We tried everything we could. We tried to source locally customised shoes but the quality was appalling, and they all got the pressure points wrong.
“We tried to get shoes from people who work with para athletes but for some reason, it didn’t materialise either.”
Knee and ankle injuries kept Barman on the sidelines for nearly a year before she made a comeback in June to secure her second Asian Games participation.
“Her preparation has been slightly up and down, partly because of injuries. We are trying to extract the maximum out of her at the Games,” Sarkar said.
“She has tremendous willpower. If she can manage to get near to her personal best (5,942), that should get her a medal.”
Uzbek Ekaterina Voronina won the women’s heptathlon gold with 5,912 at the Incheon Games four years ago, while Barman totalled 5,178.
“She is good at jumps, throw and hurdles but running has never been her strong point and we need improvement there,” Sarkar added.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)