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Deborah Herold: From tsunami survivor to champion cyclist

Deborah Herold has gone where no other Indian cyclist has. And it's a long way from a childhood rent apart by a tsunami

Kathakali Chanda
Published: Jul 1, 2016 06:58:38 AM IST
Updated: Jul 1, 2016 12:26:42 PM IST
Deborah Herold: From tsunami survivor to champion cyclist
Image: Amit verma
Deborah Herold would once bunk cycling practice to play football, but now, at the national camp in Delhi, she is breaking records over and over again

Twenty-one-year-old Deborah Herold is a picture of concentration as she ties a lifting belt around her waist. She takes her time to adjust the buckle while taking languid steps to the barbell. As her trainers slip in weight discs on either side of the slender rod, she fidgets with her palms and then wraps them around it. Doubling up, she waits—almost meditatively—with only a few twitches in her muscles hinting at the impending snatch. Then, as she squats to lift the weights, she spots the camera lens focussed on her. In one moment, the intensity snaps and she breaks into a toothy grin.   

Cameras have been on Herold’s trail since November 2015, when she became the first Indian cyclist to climb to world No 4 in individual rankings in 500 metres time trial, according to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), cycling’s global governing body. Her achievement came after the Track Asia Cup in New Delhi in November, where she won three medals, including gold in the women’s elite sprint. Herold also became the first Indian cyclist to qualify for the prestigious Track Cycling World Championships held in London in March, where only the world’s top 20 cyclists made the cut.

But Herold wears her rapid, spirited rise lightly. Before we speak to her at the indoor velodrome at the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex in Delhi, she rushes off to fetch chairs for everyone. She’s candid about her struggles in a big city, with language in particular, and admits that she’s made progress from last year, when she would only gesticulate. She doesn’t have much of a life outside the velodrome, except the odd outings on Sundays. But that’s alright, because the cycling arena feeds her singular obsession: Speed.

On most days, Herold tries to outpace herself on the 250 metre circular timber track. And in between her training sessions, she searches for still more speed—in the racing games she has downloaded on her smartphone. The only man who can stop her in her tracks is Michael Jackson and if it’s ‘Dangerous’, she wouldn’t mind shaking a leg too.   

Herold herself didn’t have cycling ambitions till some years ago. Till then, hailing from a family of meagre means, hers was a story of any other Nicobarese tribal—modest and listless. Till came the morning after Christmas, 12 years ago, when their lives turned upside down. On December 26, 2004, nine-year-old Herold and her brother, three years younger, were woken up by their mother around dawn in their Car Nicobar home. By then, the earth was writhing from a quake measuring 9 on the Richter Scale somewhere off Indonesia. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, an archipelago out in the Bay of Bengal, were bearing the first brunt of the quake on Indian landmass. As furniture tumbled around them, Herold’s mother lifted her children in her arms and ran out. Before she could move to safety, towering tsunami waves swallowed the northernmost region of the Nicobar islands, and, as the water pummelled in, the girl slipped from her mother’s grip. Herold didn’t know how to swim and no one around stopped to give her a hand. The only thing she could think of doing was to climb the nearest tree.

That was where she remained perched for the next five days, watching the water rise and ebb. “I was hungry and there were a lot of mosquitoes. But I just hung on,” says Herold. Once the water receded, and the search parties and her parents came looking for survivors, she cried out. “My parents had given up hope. They thought I was dead. But not me. I never felt that I would give up.”  

Giving up isn’t Herold’s thing. She fought through the aftermath of the tsunami devastation, helping her family rebuild their lives. Her survival instincts shone through once again when she began cycling and was uprooted from Car Nicobar and brought to the national capital, a city 10 times the size of her homeland. Apart from honing her skills on her bike, Herold used her three years in Delhi to pick up a working knowledge of English and meld into the Indira Gandhi Sports Complex hostel, which houses trainees from all corners of the country.

Last October, days before she was to leave for the Taiwan Cup Track International Classic, Herold came down with dengue, and lost 5 kg in bodyweight. It made chief national cycling coach RK Sharma, under whom Herold is training at the Delhi camp, doubt her prospects at the tournament.

Deborah Herold: From tsunami survivor to champion cyclist
Image: Amit verma
Herold and coach RK Sharma have formed a formidable partnership over three years

But not only did Herold make it to the tournament, she even returned with five medals, including gold in the women’s elite sprint category. Her performance also helped her break into the top 10 in the individual category. “She never lets go till the finishing line, never mind even if the competitor is ahead of her right from the start. That’s what makes her a champion,” says Sharma.

This fearless, raring-to-go spirit manifested in Herold when she was a child. At Car Nicobar, she would get into scuffles with boys and beat them hollow; or challenge them to climb ropes hung from trees and haul herself up at lightning speed before the others. This abundance of energy saw her try out all sorts of sports—sprint runs, long jump, what have you—make it to a local women’s football team and win a 5-kilometre race, leading the runner-up by a kilometre.

Cycling wasn’t really a preference, and she would tinker with the bike “aise hi [just like that]”. But when word got around of a selection camp organised by the Sports Authority of India (SAI) in Port Blair in 2009, she pedalled in. With her regular bicycle and without any training, Herold beat the trainees at SAI and was selected to represent her school at the inter-state school games in Pune in 2009.

At the national-level meet, Herold ended up 9th among 11 participants, but caught the eye of Subhendu Sengupta, the coach for Andaman and Nicobar Islands. “I liked the way she managed to beat two national-level cyclists without proper training and equipment. I also liked her never-say-die spirit. After she lost, she told me she’ll train harder and come back a winner next year,” says Sengupta. “I recommended her, and in 2010, she was selected to join the Port Blair camp.”
But that year, her family, particularly her mother who thought cycling would be a tough sport for a girl, refused to let her relocate from Car Nicobar (where her father was a temporary staff member at the Indian Air Force base) to Port Blair for training. They had also grown protective about the girl after the tsunami. Sengupta recalls that it took a year to convince them and Herold finally joined SAI, Port Blair, in 2011. In January 2012, at the Amritsar nationals, she won gold in the sub-junior category, clocking a time better than the junior champion. “She was spotted by the national selectors and selected for the camp in Delhi. That’s the beginning of the Deborah story,” says Sengupta.   

In 2013, around the time Herold joined the national camp in Delhi, national cycling coach RK Sharma had just returned from Aigle, in Switzerland, with a diploma in road and track training. Armed with a training programme that, in his own words, was decades ahead of India’s, Sharma set out to chart a road map for Indian cyclists to raise their game in international competitions. His first student, Herold, made him hopeful. At the camp, she broke national records over and over again. “The first time she rode in front of me, she improved her previous timing. And on every occasion since, she has only bettered her record,” says Sharma.

VN Singh, the assistant secretary of the Cycling Federation of India (CFI), says, “When she first came here, she clocked around 41 seconds in the 500 metre time trial. Now she is around 36 seconds, and is the first woman cyclist in India to break the 37-second barrier in the category. In the 200 metre sprint, too, she is the national record holder. Right now, she has no competition in India.”

What makes Herold a good cyclist? Genes, for one. Herold belongs to the Nicobarese tribe that originates from the Mongoloid stock and is known to have a well-built structure, especially calf muscles that are essential for cycling. Besides, her body is endowed with fast-twitch muscles that are designed for quick contractions, enabling speed and power (as opposed to slow-twitch muscles that are good for enduring long distances). These give Herold a sprinter’s anatomy, and power her short bursts of high-speed performances.

But what propels her forth is her single-minded approach to the sport: The urge to go faster and faster, and the ability to break down the bigger picture into smaller, daily targets. On some days, the target is to cross the finishing line microseconds earlier than before; on some other days, it is to train her muscles harder, to be supple and tenacious at the same time. There are days when waking up early, going for runs, quick-shower-change-dash, for races seems a chore, and the heart tells the head to give the punishing routine a miss. But, the very next instant, the head is firmly in control. “You tell yourself about the long-term goal and keep pushing,” says Herold.      

The bird’s eye that she is taking aim at, of course, is the Olympics in 2020. And the road to Tokyo is a long and arduous one. The race starts in November 2018, and points earned from 10 tournaments—three world cups, one world championships and one Asian championship each year—through 24 months add up for qualifications. Only the top 27 riders will make it, nine in individual categories and 18 in team championships, and the microest of microseconds will separate the podium from the exit door.

Herold got a taste of the cut-throat competition at the UCI championships in London in March, where she finished last in the 500 metre time trial, almost 4 seconds behind champion Anastasiia Voinova of Russia. That’s a lot of ground to make, given that the top three were separated by less than a second.

Last year, Herold clocked her best of 11.06 seconds in the 200 metre sprint, in the Track Asia Cup in Delhi. Sharma reckons she would need to hit at least 10.7 seconds to qualify for the Olympics in that category. If she can reach 11.1 seconds by the end of 2016, he believes she will be on course. “But for that,” says Sharma, “she has to build her muscles, do weight and strength training. Besides, cycling is a tactical sport. She has to out-think the other rider, know when to conserve energy, when to block her opponent and when to accelerate for the final burst. Every race is different.”

Herold, though, isn’t dwelling much on her London performance. A cyclist typically hits peak form around 28 years and, at 21, she knows she still has several opportunities ahead of her. “Nahi, nahi [No, no],” she shakes her head vigorously when asked if a loss makes her sad. “It makes me more determined. If I am down, I’ll fight more. Only when I’m behind in a race, I get angry and I channel my anger towards pedalling even harder. But if I lose, I know it’s an opportunity to perform even better in the next race.” She often looks back on London for the exposure it gave her and the opportunity she got to rub shoulders with international cyclists, particularly her icon Voinova. “It’s important to see how champions conduct themselves, what they eat, how they exercise right before the race. Plus learn a few lessons about focusing. International cyclists don’t even talk before a race,” says Herold.  

Her first coach Sengupta says Herold’s got a bit of that champion streak in her. “She’s never homesick, even though she stays away from her family for years. It’s something that affects many other athletes,” he says.   

This March, Herold went back to Car Nicobar after two years to a hero’s welcome. People poured in to meet her and she also made an appearance at the police station, where she holds the job of a sub-inspector. “They didn’t recognise me at first,” she says. Has her hipster hairstyle got something to do with it? Her face melts into a smile. The diffident, young girl, who would bunk cycling practice to play football, has come a long way, says Sengupta. And the radical, new haircut inspired by Colombian cyclist Fabian Hernando Puerta Zapata is just one of its many manifestations.

Herold still has many laps to go before the jury decides if she’ll end up as the star of Indian cycling, or merely play a cameo. Her performance at the 2018 Asiad in Jakarta will be watched closely. If she manages to win a medal, she’ll end a 67-year drought for the country, after individual bronzes won by Rohinton Noble and Netai Chand Bysack in the inaugural Delhi Asian Games in 1951.

But whatever the outcome, she’s already secured a legacy for herself by bringing the distant islands of Andaman and Nicobar on the Indian sporting landscape. Impressed by Herold’s performance, CFI’s Singh has gone to the Islands subsequently to scout for more cycling talents, and returned with three more exciting prospects—Emerson, Arkaprava Baul and Essaw—who are being groomed in Delhi. Most of all, Herold has afforded the trio the breadth of desire to aspire to compete on the international stage. And that in itself is no mean feat.

(This story appears in the 08 July, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Satish Mullick

    Hello, Harold\'s life story needs to be publicized. Whenever she gets time, she should give talk to young girls, in their schools, or other gatherings, act as role model, and tell them they can achieve whatever they wanted by following her foot steps.

    on Jul 1, 2016