Swimming is a road less traveled in our country but that needs to change | By Virdhawal Khade

Times are changing; swimming is going to be a major discipline in our country in the upcoming years! Moving the focus outside the oval ground and the 22-yard strip will push forward a lot of sports and open new avenues for budding athletes who are devoid of exposure, we need to change our habits and it’s high time we do that! Aiming high for the 2018 Asian Games is a top priority at the present moment.

How it all started

My father being a basketball player always wanted me to indulge in a sport, and there I was flapping my wings inside a swimming pool in the summer of 1995. Never knew it would offer me a career in the future. I just learnt how to swim but my coaches identified the talent inside me and believed that I had what it takes to become a professional. Being a sportsman himself, my dad wanted me to continue swimming, that’s where it all started!

After training rigorously for a year it was time to kick-start the competitive career, and guess what? I went off to a flyer, winning local tournaments with ease. But hogging the limelight and attention of the entire nation occurred after breaking several national records starting in the year 2005. Having claimed the records for the 100m and 200m freestyle in that year, it took me another year to grab rights for the 50m and 400m categories. Overjoyed and overwhelmed, I was destined for more in the upcoming days!

The Olympics experience

It was unreal! When I qualified for the Olympics I was 16 and it happened during the World Championships in Melbourne in 2007. It was a situation where I had to miss my board exams in order to participate in Beijing. It was a rather crazy decision and unrealistic at that time for someone to skip the board exam for a competition. But after much speculation, my coach and my father made up their minds and I was headed to Beijing, thus becoming the youngest swimmer from India to participate in the quadrennial meet.

Watching legends like Michael Phelps up close and being at such a big event was memorable. It was a learning curve for me. It really made me feel that all my sacrifices and hard work had paid after all. The qualification to the Beijing Olympics is still my biggest achievement. Skipping my board exams to be part of the mega event was worth it! Although the Asian Games Bronze medal was very special and historic for India because the nation was devoid of medals for a very long time, the Olympic Games participation still remains my biggest achievement.

The setback

Come 2012, a phase in my career started which moved the curve in a downward slope. We were training in Europe for the Olympics, it was then that the Federation decided to send somebody to the Universality quota and that was a big shock. About the time Maharashtra offered me a job for performing very well for Maharashtra and India, I knew I wasn’t going to participate in the London Olympics so I thought the right thing to do was to accept the offer. So, I joined the Maharashtra Government as an officer.

For the next four-five years I was so busy with work that I did not get enough time to train. So I missed the 2014 Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games and also the 2016 Olympics. It was a huge setback for me from the swimming perspective! But in life, you’ll get knocked down, but the important thing is to get up and start fresh. Swimming was always inside me but physically it had been difficult for me to take part actively.

Rising beyond…

When I got transferred to Mumbai sometime towards the end of last year, I spoke to my bosses and they were very supportive like the collector of Mumbai sub-urban districts. It was because of their support that I could put long hours and more stress in swimming training and work took a backseat and resumed as a full-time athlete. I am still in my prime and I feel I am yet to give my best for India.

Timing wise I’m much faster right now, the time when I took part in the 2010 Asian Games in 2010 I covered 50m in 22.84 seconds while in the Asian Games qualifying round last week I clocked 22.52 seconds, which is better. The problem is that having not trained from 2012 to 2016 I’ve lost all my stamina and I can only compete in 2-3 events. Before 2012, I was consistently performing well in 5-6 events, which is not possible right now.

Swimming is not India’s forte

The thing is that it seems that India underperforms at big-ticket events like the Olympics and the Asian Games. But the fact is that we have improved substantially in the past 10-15 years. For example, when I broke the national record in 2005, the timing was 53 seconds for the 100m category and today it is 49, so you can actually gauge the improvement.

Previously, just participating in the Asian Games was a huge thing for us, but now swimmers are actually preparing for making a mark in the events, they are eyeing a podium finish although there is no guarantee of happening so. But yes, it has changed a lot over the years and in the coming 10 years or so we are going to win medals consistently rather than just making an appearance. Hopefully, in the upcoming Jakarta Asian Games, we will win more than 1 medal in swimming!

The mindset and the remedies

Indian parents want their children to play cricket because they make a career out of it, but swimming doesn’t offer that. Cricket offers so much success and money, it is obvious that the money and fame involved will always tempt common folk to flock towards cricket academies rather than swimming coaching centres.

Cricket is a sport where even if you make it to a Ranji team, you can be assured of financial stability. You can’t really make a career out of swimming right now and so the parents do not want their children to commit to a sport which has no future. Investments should cater dividends is the cardinal rule, it is obvious why people tend to spend their money on cricket and not swimming.

We don’t really have too many people getting involved in swimming in our country. A small country like Singapore, they have 200-300 swimmers in each event whereas in India which has a more than a billion people sees a few hundred swimmers in an entire competition. A sport will emerge if and only the people take keen interest and make an effort to exploit and take part in it actively.

With the 2018 Asian Games around the corner, my training is in full swing and eyeing less than a medal will not be a good target at aim at. Nothing less than a medal will be disappointing for the developments and the future of swimming in India!