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Alongside Athletics, Swimming is considered a blue riband event in multi sport games. With a multitude of medals on offer, often countries with strong swimming programs end up very high in the ranking tables at multi sport games. Australia is a shining example. Unfortunately in spite of a billion plus population living in the backdrop of umpteen rivers and lakes, India has been a virtual non entity in the sport of aquatics. The reasons are aplenty. Against this backdrop, some 10 summers ago a talented teenager by the name Virdhawal Khade, became the youngest Indian swimmer to qualify for Beijing Olympics. Khade, then all of 16 years swam in the the 100m freestyle, along with India's best ever breaststroke talent, Sandeep Sejwal. Fast forward 10 years to the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games this week, India is still spearheaded by the handsome six-footer Khade now all of 26 years. A lot of water has flown under the bridge for Khade and Indian swimming, but Khade is still the flag bearer of Indian swimming..or so it seems. A holder of 5 national records that he has held for the best part of a decade, Khade is a sprinter focusing more on the shorter 50 freestyle and 50 butterfly. His best years were in the 2008-10 period, which culminated in a bronze at the Guangzhou Asian games 2010, at his pet 50 butterfly event, the same day Ashish Kumar won a bronze for India in Gymnastics. A career which was about to reach out to the stars aborted due to a host of factors. He, along with 3 other swimmers had met the 'B' qualification marks set by FINA for the London Olympics. It was one of the big mysteries of Indian sport that Khade and/or the other 3 qualifers were ignored and A.P.Gagan was sent for the 1500 m event. Probably this was the straw that broke the camels back. Khade sought the security of a government job and he was appointed as tahsildar (revenue inspector) by the State government in 2012. Posted in rural Maharashtra, Khade's workload and nature of work impacted his swimming schedule adversely. He missed the 2014 Commonwealth & Asian Games, the Rio Olympics and the 2013/15 World Championships. Also read: Commonwealth Games 2018: Complete schedule by discipline Probably his inherent love for swimming pushed him to secure a transfer back to Mumbai. Balancing profession alongside 6 hours in the pool and a couple in the gym is no mean feat. But it is a testimony of his love to his sport and penchant for hard work that is seeing him on the plane to Gold Coast. He recently won medals at the Singapore Open Championships with timings within a couple of strokes from his national records swims a decade ago. His 23.02 seconds 50m freestyle swim compares very well with his national record of 22.68 seconds, and this with just 6 months hardcore training.
'Never say die' attitudeAccompanying him to Gold coast is Srihari Natraj, the teenage backstroke specialist and probably India's best talent since Khade himself. Long of hands and limbs, Natraj seems to break national records in the 3 backstroke distances almost every time he enters the pool. The 17 year old shot into prominence at 2017 nationals with a clean sweep in the backstroke distances with national records. He won the title of Best Swimmer Award too. Natraj carried this form into the Khelo India School Games, breaking his own 100m backstroke record. In the process he also qualified for the Youth Olympics to be held later this year. The strategy of pitting him against 100 m freestylers during the 100 backstroke seems to be paying off. Natraj has a great sense of awareness about his own weaknesses and where he stands against the elite swimmers (many of whom will be at Gold Coast). His eagerness to learn and work hard on his shortcomings makes him the anointed one amongst the rising stock of young Indian male swimmers. Natraj holds the national record in 50m (26.58 secs), 100m (56.90 secs) & 200m (2.04.11 secs). With so much elite competition in the form of Asian Games and Youth Olympics to come, this 17 year old should end 2018 a much improved swimmer. Arguably India's most versatile swimmer, Sajan Prakash is the third swimmer of the Indian contingent. More of an endurance swimmer than a sprinter, Sajan will participate in 100 & 200 butterfly apart from 1500 m free. He holds the national record the last two events. The 200 fly seems to be his pet event, but Sajan struggles at the back end of the event after being almost at par with the leaders for the first 100. He would need to improve his national record of 1.59 by over 3 secs to make the final. Prakash who has been training in Phuket, Thailand under a FINA scholarship has recently shifted base to Dubai, where India's national coach S.Pradeep has his academy. It will be a futile exercise to compare the best timings of the Indians with the swimmers from leading nations as an enormous pool of proven and to be proved talent from the powerhouses like Australia, England, South Africa and other British nations will ensure that the 3 Indians stay away from the podium and even the semifinals/finals. But Khade & Co will be richer by the experience, especially the youngster Nataraj, who will feel the pangs of big tournament pressure for the first time. More than skills, it will be their temperaments that will be on test.