The Thanyapura Academy in Phuket is fondly known among swimming circuits as a FINA hub. In 2015, as a part of a partnership between the global body for governance of swimming and the academy itself, 21 aspiring Olympians and potential medalists from all over the world were selected, on a scholarship basis, to avail the state-of-the-art facilities in Thanyapura. This was done to target the world level swimmers, or the swimmers with the potential to achieve something fantastic, to chase their Olympic dreams with the best training and infrastructure possible. This is what makes it a “hub”. But as Niranjan Mukundan clarifies, it has, so far, been a hub for able-bodied swimmers.
“I was actually introduced to them through GoSports,” Niranjan says in passing during a conversation with The Bridge. “We keep travelling for what is called ‘elevation training‘ where you are acclimated to different systems of training, and this was one of them. I just really liked their training regimen the first time I saw it,” he adds.
Thanyapura Academy is run by one Miguel Lopez– a man so deeply involved in coaching champions, he has 6 Olympic and 5 Paralympic medalists as his wards with a keen eye at spotting even more talent. That’s the thing about sports. It is necessary, especially for someone with a responsibility to coach, to continually be alert in the face of new talent.
In colloquial Hindi terms, the closest metaphor one can find is that of a johri, a lapidary; someone with knowledge and understanding deep enough to recognise and develop diamonds from the darkest of mines. And here, credit must be given to Miguel Lopez for spotting Niranjan when he did.
“It has been nearly two years since I started my training there,” mentions the Indian para-swimmer. “It’s a scholarship I am making full use of, and there has been no turning back since then.”
The scholarship in question extends up to the 2018 Asian Para Games.
For Niranjan, this is not the first time that his abilities in the pool have caught the eye of relevant people. Miguel Lopez, the godfather among currently active swimming coaches, is not the first curator to recognise the potential this 24-year old holds.
Each time, the circumstances have led to extraordinary things happening for his career and, to his credit, he has made sure to make full use of them all. Born with a condition called spina bifida, swimming was just something that was recommended for better growth and development of muscles as a child born with it. Since birth till the time of writing this piece, Niranjan has been put through 17 different surgeries. Swimming was just a part of Aqua Therapy advised by the doctors to strengthen his legs.
“Till the age of five, I was paralysed. My parents used to carry me everywhere,” he explains. “Once, I had a marathon of surgeries, and that was when the doctor came up with this as a possible solution.”
It’s been 16 years since then, 16-years since Niranjan, a boy with no serious hopes of competitive swimming, met his long-time coach John Christopher in Bangalore, who promised to turn him into an internationally acclaimed swimmer after seeing him take to the water as naturally as he did.
“The fact that I fell in love with swimming was purely secondary and a happy chance,” adds Niranjan. And he certainly has scripted an illustrious career to back his affinity to the water. From representing India internationally for the first time in 2012, it wasn’t until 2015, that he achieved something that forced the Indian sporting circuit to take notice of him.
It was what Niranjan describes as a transition period in his career. His first major medal in the senior circuit, of course, came in the 2014 Asian Para Games when he won the Bronze along with the 4×100 Relay team. But it was 2015 that brought with it the magic and the motivation necessary.
“The World Junior Games in 2015 was among the most memorable tournaments,” he laughs. And why shouldn’t it be? An athlete at the cusp of stepping into the more challenging senior circuit, the 2015 World Junior Games was among Niranjan’s final tournaments in an age group category. The previous year had seen him tally an astonishing eight medals at the IWAS World Junior Games but, as he recounts, the build-up to the tournament in 2015 was anything but easy.
“That same year, I was injured and out of practice for a couple of months before the tournament. We just got around four months to train for the event.”
Not once did the duo of John Christopher and Niranjan Mukundan ever consider the prospect of winning, let alone creating the kind of records he went on to register in the tournament. They were just clear on one thing- finishing his stint in the Junior category on a high note. Their strategy for the competition was based on this simple philosophy only. Consequently, Niranjan registered for ten events in the competition and, by the end of it, had secured a medal in each event he had participated in- 7 Golds and 3 Silvers.
“It was just an experiment, to be honest,” he adds. “At that time, I was mainly focusing on sprint events, but John advised me to expand a bit more- to go a little outside my comfort zone. Somehow, that worked.”
When it comes to swimming, the world level tournaments rank immediately after the Olympics. Continental and other international competitions like the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games fall immediately after. In 2015, with that scintillating performance, Niranjan made history. It was the highest gold medal tally by an Indian at the IWAS World Juniors and all of it came from someone who had not been indulging in rigorous training for a good many months prior to that.
“In swimming, every second spent in training counts,” he adds gravely. “If you miss a single day, in my book, even that is a setback because you need to strive to maintain your quality as a swimmer constantly.”
The fact that he is injury prone does not help his case. Low sensation in the left side of his body has left him in want of regular treatment that often clashes with his routine, but it also makes everything that he has achieved so far shine a little brighter. Not only has Niranjan Mukundan been consistent, but he has also successfully taken up the mantle of Indian swimming, not just para-swimming, after the likes of Virdhawal Khade, Sandeep Sejwal, Sajan Prakash and Sharath Gayakwad- all of whom, according to him, have inspired him at various junctions in life. However, he harbours no delusions about the state of competitive swimming in India.
“Let’s take an example. If someone is pursuing higher academics and his or her training schedule clashes with that to the extent that one of the activities must be given up, they often opt to give up their sport,” observes Niranjan. “This is especially sad when it happens to a potentially good swimmer because most of us Indians indulge in swimming as recreation. That’s how the sport is perceived here.”
Even if we go beyond the general mindset of the populace, is the available infrastructure in India enough to hone a world champion truly? Going through the “champions” system of training for the past two years has helped develop a sense of unbiased reason in Niranjan. Broadened perspectives and exposure have helped him grow not only as a swimmer but also as an observer.
“So, it’s predominantly the European training regime. Miguel, being Spanish, is well attuned to it and what makes it stand out is the amount of stress given to building up endurance,” Niranjan observes. “In India, we usually work more on technique- it’s similar to the one followed by the United States.”
“In Thanyapura, the day consists of three sessions of swimming. You start at 5 in the morning and swim for the next two hours. The next session starts at 11.30 in the morning and the aim, once again, is to test your capacity after a good rest post the morning session. The last one comes at 5 in the afternoon carrying on till almost 8 or 8:30 in the evening.”
The load, as he describes, was comparatively more than the structure he had been used to in India- which included a total swim of 6-7 km across two sessions per day as opposed to the 11-12 km of swimming that he is now required to participate in on a regular basis in Phuket. “Once you build a strong base and push yourself to improve your endurance, the rest of it is just fine tuning,” he adds.
Niranjan’s life has been full of transitions, of falling and learning to pick himself up, of getting injuries and repeatedly recovering from the setbacks caused as a result. But this champion is raring to go. Just this year, in June, he registered an Asian record at the World Games, and even that came at the back of surgery for an injured ankle. Interestingly, the record was achieved in 200m Backstroke which, by Niranjan’s own admission, is not a forte.
His main event, 50m Butterfly, yielded Bronze at the same tournament. What must it be like to savour those achievements that come when you’re least expecting them to? In hindsight, when you look at the endless cycle of injury and recovery that forms the backstories of each medal, the pure genius of Niranjan is appreciated.
“Fitness and diet are the most important aspects in the life of an elite athlete,” he quips. “It shouldn’t matter whether you have an upcoming tournament or its off-season, whether you’re fit or injured. The proper working of your body is ultimately all you have.”
“I try to keep myself mentally strong. Once you know that you’re injured, and you won’t be training for a specific amount of time, it’s tough to stay focused. You’re plagued with a lot of thoughts and, in that situation, it is very easy to fall prey to stress and negativity. But you need to keep at it.”
“I recently got the news that I have met the criteria to qualify for the upcoming World Championships,” Niranjan adds with a slight hint of pride. “Consistency definitely helps.”
But there remains a more significant issue at hand. Brilliance alone is never enough to sustain anything. “The thing we need to understand when it comes to the kind of support Indian sports and the athletes receive is that private sponsors look at records,” Niranjan remarks. “For example, if I approach someone, they’ll tell me that India does not have a good record internationally in my sport. And then they probably will decide not to extend the necessary support. It’s a very twisted circle, and a proper understanding of sports is needed to ensure a better system of private funding.”
With the Asian Para Games right around the corner, Niranjan Mukundan has his targets set on a medal. And he is indeed a favourite to win not just one, but multiple ones. Indian swimming has an unhailed hero. And he will be competing in Jakarta hoping to continue the fantastic streak of good years he has been having.
“My time as an athlete has taught me to take things one day at a time,” says a realistic Niranjan. “That, according to me, is the best way to achieve the targets you have set for yourself.”