They train in the same city, but in different locations. Yet, during their compelling performances in the Asian Games, teenager Srihari Nataraj and Virdhawal Khade who is palpably the elder statesman of the Indian swimming team, were woven together in their pursuit of excellence by some threads like singularity of purpose, insatiable hunger to improve and relentless hard work.
They are also the flag-bearers of a sport in India which will soon find it hard to compete with other disciplines if it is not already in that position. More importantly, however, they represent different parts of the spectrum of the Indian swimming story – Khade, soon to be 27, representing what could have been and Nataraj, 17, what could possibly be.
Let us consider some facts before we take that discussion up. At the Asian Games, Indians have so far secured places in half a dozen finals, with Khade’s fourth place finish in the 50m freestyle final being the best. They also earned reserve berths in two finals and rewrote National records eight times. And, the two men in focus accounted for six records and four finals.
Virdhawal Khade’s fourth-place finish in men’s 50m freestyle is India’s best result swimming so far in the games. AFP
There have been questions, mostly from those who probably do not appreciate the standard of swimming in the continent, about the value of the National records since they did not lead to medals. A look at the medals tally in the Asian Games offers a helpful hint. Japan and China have cornered bulk of the medals.
And only five other countries claimed any medals, Singapore’s Olympic Games champion Joseph Schooling winning two gold medals from under the noses of the swimmers from the ‘Big Two’ in the 50m butterfly final in 23.61 seconds and in 100m butterfly final with a Games Record time of 51.04. Korea, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan and Vietnam figured in the charts with at least a medal.
Of course, the statistics do not augur well for India but there is hope yet. It has to be believed that the two men will have done a fair bit in raising the profile of the sport with their consistent performances at the GBK Aquatic Centre in Jakarta.
One has made it a habit of lowering the National Record each time he enters the pool – and Nataraj had already shown that he could do it in the Commonwealth Games – while the other rewrote a couple of sprint records that he set as a teenager nine years ago. They are both driven by the desire to excel at the highest of platforms – the Olympic Games in 2020.
With due respect to all those who have nurtured these champions, it is time for Swimming Federation of India (SFI) to script a professional course. Many years ago, swimming received a shot in the arm when Australian Eric Arnold coached the Indians, notably Khajan Singh. It is time that a similar boost of inspiration comes by and helps talented swimmers raise their own standards.
With Bengaluru now boasting of a world-class aquatics centre in the Padukone-Dravid Centre of Excellence, it should be possible for the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to tie up with it so that the country’s best swimmers could train there – with their own coaches and perhaps with those commissioned from overseas.
Khajan, who won the 200m butterfly bronze medal in the Asian Games in Seoul in 1986, is among those who cry themselves hoarse that India does not lack talent. Clearly, the country needs a modern high-performance plan that will ensure that the really talented youngsters – and there are a few like Advait Page and Neel Roy – are groomed to win medals at the continental level.
Perhaps, the teenagers can try and discover the NCAA route that high jumper Tejaswin Shankar has taken. Nataraj would be worried if his grades will get him to a good university or not. His timings and potential will help. Surely, India’s sports establishment can find him a solution, without his having to take a study loan to find the right environment to evolve more rapidly.
It is important that he does not go the same route as Maana Patel, the 18-year-old backstroke swimmer from Ahmedabad, who was in the TOPS list in 2016. By insisting on her remaining in the Gujarat capital, some officials stunted the chances of her growth. Worse, the 18-year-old’s injury woes have kept her away from competition for a year now – and from the Asian Games.
It is time for the SFI to wake up to the reality that the sport faces a threat from many other disciplines, especially with many states announcing lucrative rewards for medal winners in the Asian Games. There is no doubt that swimming is a visual delight, but for the sport to stay relevant, it is imperative that it invests a lot more in discovering and honing talent.
The best people in the business, including some from overseas, must come together and find a way to take the elite swimmers, especially Nataraj, to the next level. Without exception, the talented in any sport need a great deal of planning to rise and be counted at the international level. It can only be hoped that the backstroke swimmers are nurtured with care.
Else, four years later, we would be talking about missed opportunities. Again. And Nataraj may well be the Khade that we would be speaking of. In hushed and poignant tones