Campal, Goa: The evening at the Campal swimming pool was set for the last event of aquatics at the National Games 2023 on Saturday.
In the 4x100m mixed medley relay race, Maharashtra was in fourth position before 32-year-old Virdhawal Khade jumped in the pool and out-swam youngsters around him to finish in the second position.
“I was not sure what happened in those last 10 meters,” he quipped after the race. Earlier, he clinched gold medals in 50m butterfly and freestyle, silver in mixed 4x100m freestyle, and bronze in men 4x100m freestyle.
It is poetic that his first medal at the national level was a silver in the Junior Nationals in Margao and he ended his domestic career with a silver medal in the same state.
“It feels awesome to go out on a high. It has been quite some journey till now and I won’t be competing nationally anymore,” Virdhawal told The Bridge on the sidelines of the 37th National Games.
Virdhawal announced his retirement from the domestic level competitions and is yet to take a call on his international career.
“I am done with the domestic scene as the preparatory period is very hectic. I am yet to decide which international tournament will be my last but 2024 will be the last year for me,” said Virdhawal.
In his swansong individual event, Virdhawal showcased his mastery by winning the gold medal in the 50m butterfly and shattering the Games record.
The flagbearer of the Indian swimming
The swimmer from Kolhapur, Maharashtra has the honour of having many firsts of the Indian swimming to his name. Starting as a teenager in swimming, Khade became the youngest-ever Indian swimmer to qualify for the Olympics.
Virdhawal participated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and recorded his personal best in the 100m freestyle event.
Although his favourite moment of his career remains from his youth days when he enthralled the packed Pune crowd in the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games.
“There are many moments but the favourite has to be the Commonwealth Youth Games 2008. It is my personal favourite because it was in Pune and the kind of support I had remains special for me, to date,” reminisced Virdhawal.
For ardent fans of Indian sports, Virdhawal's crowning achievement remains his historic bronze medal at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games, ending a 24-year dry spell for India in swimming.
He clocked 24.31 seconds in the men's 50m butterfly, becoming the first Indian swimmer to clinch an Asiad medal in the event.
However, apart from the medal-winning moments, there is another moment that could have been historic but the ‘fine margin’ cliché came into the picture.
The moment was when Virdhawal finished fourth in the 50m men’s freestyle at the 2018 Asian Games by 0.01 second.
“Ah, yeah. It could have been the best moment for me but it was not to be,” said Virdhawal.
“Losing hurts but I was happy to be part of that experience. The country was expecting a medal from me and that expectation is a privilege. I know I lost the medal but the whole experience made me a better person,” recalled Virdhawal.
Virdhawal's legacy in the National Games began in 2007, where he triumphed with six gold medals and five shattered Games records at the 2007 Guwahati National Games. His dominance continued in the 2011 National Games, where he earned an astonishing 12 medals and was celebrated as the best male athlete.
The last hurrah of a champion swimmer
While the allure of the pool still beckons, Virdhawal acknowledges that his body no longer responds the same way. "I want to continue, but my body doesn't feel the same at the moment, and for the same reason, I have decided to pick and choose what I will do."
With 2024 being the Olympic year, it would be great if one of the greatest swimmers in Indian history dives into the pool for one last time on the biggest stage.
"It is a tough ask honestly but you never know, I will take a call on the same next year sometime," said Virdhawal on the possibility of him participating at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
What next is a question that can have many answers but Virdhawal is clear that he wants to use his years of learning and experience to give back to the sport that made him an icon.
You will see me as a coach someday. I want to put my years of experience and learning to good use. I don’t know when I will start but it will be soon,” laughed Virdhawal.
For athletes, deciding when to retire is a deeply personal and introspective process and the moment seemed right for the swimmer from Kolhapur.
As the poolside lights cast a gentle glow on his face and the applause from the crowd faded away, Virdhawal dived into the pool for a relaxing swim after his last hurrah.
And with that, the final chapter of his domestic swimming career came to a close, leaving behind a legacy that would shine brightly in the annals of Indian sports history.