It’s a shame that at a time when our athletes across sports are starting to compete with the best in the world, swimming remains our Achilles Heel. In a sport that is dominated by the Japanese at the Asian level and the Australians at the CWG level, we don’t have many takers for swimming.
Just imagine, with close to 50 medals on offer in the pool, at the Olympics, we struggle to even qualify for the events, let alone winning. A fair assessment of where our Indian swimmers stand would be to compare the national records to the world record progressions in each category; in a few events, our swimmers would be where the worlds best were 50 years ago.
It is not that we haven’t produced swimmers of repute; but we have miserably failed to build on a legacy, nurture our athletes in the best possible way, and build an ecosystem for the sport to thrive in the country. Let’s go back to the 1951 Asian Games. Little known Sachin Nag bagged a gold medal for India in the 100m freestyle event, to go with a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay. In the same Games, Bimal Chandra had a bronze in 400m freestyle, while Kamlillal Shah had a silver in 100m backstroke. Jehangir Naegamwalla also had a bronze in 200m breaststroke.
Despite such a rich haul of medals, it took another 35 years for us to win a medal in the pool when finally Khajan Singh broke the jinx and secured a silver in the 200m butterfly at the 1986 Games. While this information is easily available on the web, not many would have ever heard these names too; even ardent sports fans in India. Then of course came Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal, our 21st-century heroes who showed a lot of promise, at least at the Asian level. But still, the medals did not translate into anything big for Indian swimming.
Now, India is looking at the new age swimmers, who are in their teens or early 20s and are national record holders already, constantly improving upon their timings in each category. The first name that comes to mind is Advait Page, who is a record holder in India in three categories — 400m freestyle, 1500m freestyle, and 400m individual medley. The MP boy is now a CWG finalist and would have gained some valuable experience against the best in the world. In the 1500m final, even though he finished outside the medals — seventh with a timing of 15:32.36s, he definitely sees this performance as a plus. While many would notice, that this timing was nine seconds short of his PB, it was still a massive achievement for the youngster, and he answers how.
“I knew that this was going to be on a different event and that I would possibly have to swim it twice; the heat and finals. That’s not something that normally happens; this only happens at the Olympics or the World Championships or Commonwealth Games. So this was the first time I was going to do it, so I had to just prepare myself mentally to swim two of these grueling 1500m in consecutive days,” Page told Sportscafe.
“Of course, the second swim isn’t guaranteed, but you have to make your spot in the finals. I had the eighth-best timing in the field, so I knew that it would take a pretty big effort from my side to even reach the finals. But I had good enough confidence in the training I had done, and that I wanted to do two swims. The first race is always hard to tell where you’re at and how it’s going to go, and to open with 1500 is one of the hardest jobs you could do.
“So, the heats were a little rough but I got plenty of information from it. Like a lot, I could work on, and things I needed to adjust for the final. We had like 30-32 hrs before our finals. So, to train and recover at the same time and do a better job at night was the aim. Looking back overall, I finished 7th with a time of 15:32, I feel a bit of yes and no. I have achieved a goal of a final and good place, but timing-wise, I wanted to be a little better,” he added.
In his event, Australia’s Sam Short won the gold medal with a time of 14:48.54s, which was way out of his reach. Small and consistent improvements are what the Indian is looking for right now, and he realizes that it takes time for a swimmer to reach a certain level. “It’s definitely a long-term process, and medals are something that won’t come overnight. What we are seeing with the Australians and the British is a movement that started decades ago, how they really got into swimming, and how much they have invested in it. I feel like swimming in India is on its way there and we are all sort of playing our part in taking us in that direction. We could probably be in the nascent stages of the kind of revolution we saw with badminton and wrestling in India.
“I am actually very lucky to be swimming at the same time as some really fast distance swimmers like Kushagra Rawat. Then we have a lot of younger swimmers coming up in other events as well; that is what keeps the older swimmers on their toes. It’s weird for me to call myself one of the older swimmers, but you just know, you have to give your best, every time you step into the pool. That’s what these countries like Australia and England have.”
Page, who is backed by Dream Sports Foundation and Go Sports Foundation, is now turning his attention to the National Games, due to start in September. These Games would be a stepping stone for him to achieve the qualifying mark for the Paris Olympics 2024.
“I do have little target in terms of timing planned for the meets I do. Right now I’m training for the National games in Gujarat later this September and October, so we will hope to see some good times over there. But I feel like a long-term plan would be to achieve a qualifying time for Paris which stands at 15:00s or 15:04s. It is only great that the Asian Games is next year, which allows me the opportunity to cut down on my timings, ” he concluded.
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