"It feels like a great achievement. I was super excited to be a part of the finals at such a big platform. The thrill of the meet was definitely there and it was exciting to compete with the world's best," said Apeksha Fernandes who recently scripted history at the World Junior Swimming Championship in Lima.
Fernandes became the first Indian woman to qualify for the finals at the World juniors after she qualified for the summit race in the 200m Butterfly. While winning a medal did not transpire this time, she feels this can be a stepping stone for future female swimmers.
"I got to be the first girl (to qualify for the final) and I know that there will be younger swimmers who will be coming up and taking India to the finals quite often," Apeksha said quite maturely.
A knack for bettering own time
The 17-year-old, one can say, shot to fame after she set five 'Best Indian Time' records in as many days at the National juniors held a few months back.
Since then, Apeksha has continued to break the records set by herself with every passing race. However, the youngster's mind isn't always occupied with these 'Best Indian' timings.
"I don't label my best timings as the best India timing, for myself at least. I just go with the mindset of bettering my own performances," Fernandes said.
In search of that elusive medal
While a para-swimmer in Prasanta Karmakar has won medals for the country in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an able-bodied Indian swimmer is yet to achieve this feat.
In the likes of Vedaant Madhavan, Aneesh Gowda, Aryan Nehra, Ridhima Veerendrakumar, Sambhav Rao, and Fernandes of course, we have a crop of young swimmers who can very well clinch that medal that seems so far away.
"Surely the new swimmers will come in and win medals in the future. But for now, we are still trying to get a podium finish," said a hopeful Apeksha.
"I still don't know because we put in the same hours as the other athletes. They might work a bit more, but the amount of workload we have is quite similar. It could be the team that works together. Their coaches, physios, and nutritionists work together. Here, all three are separated. Maybe this can be the reason," she commented on why India is yet to succeed at the highest level.
Racquet for the pool
"My current coach, Dr. Reddy, used to be my brother's tennis coach. During IIT Bombay's annual summer camp, it was Dr. Reddy, who was the swimming coach as well, who told me to give up tennis for swimming. That's how I got into the sport," Apeksha recalled.
Mohan Reddy continues to be an integral part of Apeksha's life, be it inside the pool or outside. Fernandes credits her success to him and rightfully so.
Coach Mohan Reddy (left) with Apeksha
"He (Reddy) has seen me as a baby! I'm like a second daughter to him and our relationship is very close. He pushes us to be better and gives us the freedom to do what we want. Moreover, he puts academics in pole position. With my performance, his coaching really speaks," said a proud student in Apeksha.
At the world juniors, Dr. Reddy couldn't accompany the 200m Butterfly finalist to Lima, which the swimmer feels could have been the cause for a dip in her performance. "I couldn't train with my coach in the few days leading up to the tournament. If I could have done so, I feel my swims would have been much better."
Birds, Books, and Biotechnology
An otherwise wise and well-spoken teenager, Apeksha's face lit up when she was asked about her hobbies and things she does when she's not cutting through the waters with her strokes.
An ardent reader, Fernandes reads about 170 books in a year! Apart from being a bibliophile, and occasionally dabbling in badminton and tennis with her family, the swimming starlet loves to venture out into the wild as well.
"I love bird-watching during the monsoon and definitely search for mushrooms outside. That is something my father and I used to do when I was a kid, and we have continued the tradition," a jovial Apeksha said.
On the topic of education, the class 11 student, who wishes to pursue Biotechnology in her undergrad, has it figured out. "I want to balance both (swimming and studies). I am on the lookout for universities that can help me balance both. Countries like the USA, Canada, and Australia have such programs that give this option to students."
Eyeing the Asiad
While Apeksha won't be participating in the National Games scheduled to take place later this month due to her exams, she is still taking a decision on her presence at the ongoing National championships in Guwahati.
"Even before the world juniors, I was experiencing slight discomfort in my lower back, which worsened with all the travel and standing in the airports. We'll take the doctor's opinion and see how I feel, and then we'll see," she said.
Apeksha's medal collection
USA's Lydia Jacoby and Canada's Summer McIntosh, who have won gold medals at events like the Olympics and the World Championships, are some teenage swimmers whose career paths Apeksha wishes to emulate.
"The biggest meet next year is the Asian Games which is a goal I have in mind. I would definitely aim to win a medal there, but I will have to train accordingly. That's a short-term goal as I'm putting all my focus on the Asiad. After that, we'll plan ahead," Fernandes concluded.