One-hundredth of a second. That is all the time it took for India’s Virdhawal Khade to miss out on a medal at the most recent Asian Games in Jakarta. To one watching the race, it would seem to be the moment things were put in perspective. Virdhawal Khade, having previously already known the joys of an Asiad medal, stayed in the pool for a little longer after the results were declared.
Looking back at the moment, Virdhawal Khade has a few positives to take from it. “Reaching that level, where it’s a matter of a few microseconds- that is an achievement in itself,” he says to The Bridge. “The fact that I managed to give my best timing with just eight to nine months of training before the Asian Games- this is what I am trying to take from the entire incident.”
“Heartbreaks like these exist in competitive sport,” he adds. “It’s best not to think about things not under your control. Missing out on a medal by that much motivated me to try harder, train better in the time before the Olympics.”
Pool or a polling booth
His training in 2019 to achieve that Olympic hope may see a few hurdles he must cross. Previously, Khade has spent a stint away from the limelight despite becoming the youngest ever Indian swimmer to qualify for the Olympics back in 2008. His posting as a Deputy Collector might mean that this election year will come with a fair share of duties for him. But the swimmer remains confidently optimistic.
“So far, my seniors have been kind enough to keep me away from election duty and transfer my job profiles,” he reveals. “This has been significantly helpful in my efforts to not let training clash with election duties.”
“The pre-preparation for the elections have already begun and, during this time, I have been able to focus only on my training. So, I would say it has been a very good start to the year for me. Going further, hopefully, if they do not make it a compulsion for me to participate, it will be a great help from the Election Commission of India.“
“Let’s see how that turns out,” says Khade. He will be getting clarity on his role during the elections only in the next couple of months. “Right now my only priority is swimming. If worst comes to worst and I am absolutely required to go to the office, I’ll prioritise my Olympic preparation and maybe take an ultimate decision then- maybe stop going to work altogether.”
“Keeping my Olympic dream alive comes before everything else.”
What 2019 holds for him and Swimming
However, the challenges for 2019 also include an Olympic qualification. This will essentially be a comeback to the big stage for the prodigal swimmer who had missed out on the 2012 and 2016 Games since making his debut as a 16-year old in Beijing. Olympic qualifications start from the beginning of March while the FINA World Championships is scheduled to be held in July. Additionally, he will be participating in several preparatory competitions in Singapore to further improve his timings. “Taking part in a lot of races always helps and that is what I plan on doing,” he says.
So far, a lack of sponsorship and financial support have limited his training in Bangalore only. With his name not finding a mention in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme, most of the cost of training has been borne by him alone. In fact, not a single swimmer has found a mention in the Sports Ministry’s flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme since Sajan Prakash and Srihari Natraj leading up to the Asian Games, a scheme which aims at sustainable investment in an athlete’s training to best groom them for an Olympic medal- a fact Virdhawal Khade describes as “unfortunate.” Other major swimmers to have received government assistance over the years have been few and have included been Khade himself who received financial support under the National Sports Development Fund for two years between 2007 and 2009 and Swimmer Manna Patel who was financed under TOPS before Rio 2016.
“Swimming, as a sport, has among the highest number of medals to offer at the Olympics. One athlete can compete for multiple medals and, as such, the return on investment is automatically higher,” he says. “Investing in swimming is a risk worth taking”
“Once the mindset changes, once the powers that be recognise this simple fact, we might have a better chance of performing better at a higher level. It would entail better, more updated training, greater participation- anything that would enable us to keep up.”
“Right now, it is important for me to at least start thinking about moving out of India to train and participate in a lot of competitions. When one is trying to qualify for the Olympics, or even thinking about winning medals on the big stage, one should not have to settle for an option just because it is financially convenient.”
“Heavy investment is needed when you are trying to feed an Olympic medal hope,” he adds. “And swimming, as a sport, is worth going the little extra mile for because it has so much quantity in medals to offer in return.”
Swimming has, undoubtedly, come a long way in the country. Much more so in the recent past where the country’s swimmers have been consistently breaking national records at various domestic and international levels. The boundaries are being pushed but is that enough to bring about a change?
“Unfortunately, national records do not hold much weight to a general observer,” he says. “Maybe the Government of India might think that National records are anyway meant to be broken in all events. Maybe a big international medal will bring the sport to attention- like maybe an Asiad or a Commonwealth Games medal.”
A tale of two prodigies at different times: Virdhawal Khade and Srihari Natraj
Back in 2008, Virdhawal Khade was touted as the next big thing for Indian swimming after he qualified for the Olympics at the age of 17. He failed to make it to the semifinals of his event but he did win his heat and even set a new personal best in the Beijing pool. That was the moment to understand the potential the then young boy brought with him to the field of play. A couple of years down the line, we have yet another young swimmer- a certain Srihari Natraj– who has made a name for himself when it comes to constantly setting new benchmarks. Natraj, at the recent Asian Games, broke his 200m National Record twice.
There seems to be a certain parallel drawn in the two stories where we once again find ourselves face to face with an extraordinary talent who has age on his side and would probably be a marvellous potential if harnessed properly. Was the chance missed when it came Virdhawal? Are we going to learn from our mistake? For his part, the now 27-year old Virdhawal Khade definitely considers the opportunity “missed” back in his days.
“When I was younger, I was the fastest Under 18 swimmer back in 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games- that was something quite noteworthy ten years ago but, unfortunately, nothing came my way save one sponsor. And even after performing consistently at high levels, that support was taken away.”
“I would say the sport of swimming in India has itself been unlucky,” he concludes. “One can hope that chances are not missed again but we have to wait to find out for sure.”