India's Fastest Woman

Asha Roy, a 21-year-old woman from a poverty-stricken village in West Bengal*, has emerged remarkably from a desperately poor background to become a national sports celebrity, the fastest female athlete India today.

Roy ran the 100-meter dash in 11.85 seconds at the 51st National Open Athletics Championships in Kolkata, and just short of the national record of 11.38 seconds, set by Rachita Mistry in Thiruvananthapuram in 2000. She also ran the fastest 200-meter dash, breasting the tape at 24.36 seconds, and anchored Bengal’s 4x100m relay team, which won the silver medal with a timing of 47.29 seconds at the Championships.

Roy’s story is all the more remarkable because she and her family are so poor that she usually is only able to eat two meals a day, with little attention to the kind of nutrition top athletes need. It is estimated in the west that the average 21-year-old female weighing 110 lb. (50 kg.) needs 2350 calories per day. Training four hours a day, Roy should be consuming another 1,500 calories per day to maintain her body weight.

Roy is the third among four daughters of Bholanath Roy, who earns his living selling vegetables door to door in his village. She is now studying for a bachelor’s degree from Sriampore College in Hooghly district. While her eldest and youngest sisters are already married, the third is a school dropout. Only Asha Roy has managed to continue with her studies and pursue her dream of becoming one of the best athletes in the country.

“I am illiterate and I could never get a proper job because of it,” Roy’s father said. “I wanted my daughters to study. Asha is the only one who has sustained the effort and is now studying for her degree.” He earns just about Rs 3,000 (US$61) per month by selling vegetables from door to door in his village.

Bulu Roy, 45, Asha’s homemaker mother, said the family lives in abject poverty. “When my husband falls ill, it becomes difficult for the family to make ends meet. However, we have encouraged Asha in her running and never put pressure on her to get married. We are unable to provide her with the nutrition or training she requires to become the best, but despite that Asha has thrived purely on her talent.”

Coach Prabir Chandra spotted Asha when she finished first at a school meet as a student of Class III. “I discussed her talent with her father and when I realized how needy the family was, I decided to take on the full responsibility for her training,” Chandra recalled. He revealed that Asha helps her father in selling vegetables for some time every day and then she trains, quite often on an empty stomach.

Against those odds, under Chandra’s guidance, Roy has started what appears to be a stellar athletic career. In Class IV she became a member of the Bengal athletic team. In Class VI she participated in the Nationals. In 2004 she won four gold medals and was named the best athlete in the school games. In 2006 she came second in the long jump and in the 100 meters at the Junior Nationals. In 2009, she won the gold for 100 meters at the Indo-Bangla International meet and in 2010 she won the silver at the University meet. This year she has bagged the gold in the 100 meter and 200 meter races and the silver in the 400 meter relay in the National Open Athletics Meet.

But to build on these achievements and to ensure her career in sports, Roy desperately needs something as basic as food.

“I need food, nutrition. I train from 7 am to 9 am and then from 3pm to 5 pm. I am now concentrating only on the 100 meter sprint and hope to qualify for the South Asian Federation (SAF) Games, to be held in New Delhi in 2012,” she says. “But without proper nutrition or competitive training, it’s going to be extremely difficult. I seek help from everyone. I want to make my country proud.”

Coach Chandra is also concerned about her future, given her extremely impoverished background. As he puts it, “She has reached this level through sheer grit and determination and because she is extremely hard-working. However, now that she has proven her worth, she certainly needs outside help.”

For the Roy parents, their daughter’s success so far has been a matter of pride. Says Bholanath, “We are happy and proud that Asha has made a name for herself. We have not given her much, except the freedom to follow her dream. She helps the family earn a livelihood and eats frugally since that’s all we can afford. But she has trained tirelessly for years. We hope some support will come for her now.”

Both the Indian Railways and the State Government of West Bengal have made promises of a job and monetary assistance after her performance at the National Open Meet. “Nothing concrete has materialized so far. If I get some offer, I will choose carefully so that I can train well for the SAF Games and then the Olympics,” Roy says. But she adds that she is not going to be dependent on this, “I have struggled so far and am willing to do so in future if need be, with the support of my family and coach.”

Athletics has always been a neglected part of Indian sports for years. In a country where even the national sport, hockey, is given short shrift, the chance that Roy will get proper logistical and economic support to help her achieve her dreams seem remote. Yet, despite the overwhelming apathy, it is the spirit of athletes from Milkha Singh to PT Usha that has kept athletic aspirations alive in India. Asha Roy has displayed that same spirit.

(© Women's Feature Service)

*Corrected Nov. 7 2011, we apologize for the editing error