The Asian Games 2018 have been a mixed bag for India so far. While there have been some amazing performances by the athletes like Dutee Chand, Vinesh Phogat and Manjit Singh, the country has not yet won the same number of medals as it did in the previous edition. One of the major disappointments this time has been from the swimming front. After quite many years, India sent a 'strong' contingent to the Games. With the likes of Virdhawal Khade, Sajan Prakash, Sandeep Sejwal, Srihari Nataraj, the country was hopeful of a couple, if not a bunch of medals. But after eight new national records and 10 appearances in the finals, our swimmers were unable to take the podium. It was a blistering performance by the team, but due to many factors, including luck, it was the Chinese and the Japanese who dominated the sport.
So, what really plagues Indian swimming? Why are Indian swimmers unable to transform into world-beaters? With such queries, we sat down with Olympian and Arjuna Awardee, Rehan Poncha, to present the real story. Rehan has been an icon in Indian swimming, competing at elite competitions such as the Beijing Olympics, Commonwealth Games, Asian Games and the Asian Indoor Games. With multiple medals at the Malaysian, Singapore and Hong Kong Open, Asian Indoor Games and Asian Swimming Championships, Rehan also holds the distinction of being three-time Senior National Champion, the Best Overall Athlete at the 2002 and 2007 National Games and a finalist at the 2010 Asian and Commonwealth Games. Despite retiring from the sports a couple of years back, he currently holds four national records. Trading in his swimming goggles for golf clubs, Rehan is dreaming of becoming a pro on his new choice of sport.
In a free-wheeling chat, he shares his take on Indian swimming team's performance at the Asian Games, and what needs to be done to promote the sport in India.
How would you rate Indian swimming team's performance at the Asian Games?
I think every one of our top swimmers who raced at the Games has created national records and bettered their personal bests. Virdhawal Khade missed a medal by the narrowest of margins and broke his own record twice over in one day which is amazing. Sajan Prakash swam a brilliant 200m butterfly. So instead of being disappointed about a medal not coming in, I'd rather celebrate the timings they clocked. Srihari Natraj is young but improving fast and will win medal by the next edition. We had some really fast swims from Srihari and Virdhawal and appreciate the great effort that it takes to get to a top four and top six in Asia. It is very commendable, and India's timings are getting better across age groups. So we should be optimistic and prepare our athletes and always support them with the necessary resources to be world beaters.
India ranks pretty low on the swimming. What reasons do you attribute for the same?
There are two ways to look at any issue, I try to look at the positive aspect. So, instead of saying that we don't stand anywhere, I would say that today we have four boys, who are clearly top six swimmers in all of Asia. While, this may not have converted into medals, as yet, but all these swimmers have improved their timings and are at their peak. In fact, one of them, Srihari is a teenager and is swimming in the Asian finals. He is clearly far ahead of the boys his age, and would surely be top three or five globally in his age-group. This is a talent for the future. Virdhawal and Sandeep are seasoned campaigners and are already rated as top three in Asia. And then you have Sajan Prakash, who is fifth in Asia in the 200 Butterfly. Thus, by no means are we at a low standard. While swimming may not have got many medals like say, shooting or wrestling has, but the standard of Indian swimming has greatly improved over the past decade. In the past, there was very little support for swimmers from the government or private bodies, but that is also changing, with the current sports minister taking an active interest in the sport. The timing gap that used to be there in the past between Indian swimmers and say, the Chinese or Japanese has narrowed much over the past few years. And that is a positive thing.
Your views on the talent pool in India? We have just a handful, while say Australia has such great bench-strength?
Frankly, that is purely a function of numbers. While the Australian population might be quite less when compared to India, they have a lot many more sportspeople that choose swimming, in comparison to India. Sadly, not many in India take up swimming as a sport for the long-term. For different reasons, we have too many swimmers quitting at 16 and 18 and no seeing the sport through their prime years like I did in the past or the way Virdhawal or Sajan are doing so now.
Usually, in India, children start swimming at 5, 6, or 7 years and leave the sport by the time they are 15 or 16, because of differing priorities, and at times, the pressure of academics. For instance, if Srihari continues to swim for the next ten odd years, he will be able to bring in multiple medals in various competitions. We need to shore up these numbers at the bottom of the pyramid.
What do you feel about the role played by the corporates?
There are quite a few examples of positive intervention by corporates like Glenmark or JSW, even the sports ministry is looking at promoting the sports. But, I would like to see more. If we need to make an impact in this sport, we need more support, promotion and so on. And more importantly, there needs to be a long-term plan. For instance, Srihari might not have brought a medal in the Asian Games, but he has set national records. Support talent like that for the next 8-10 years and then you will have your medals and champions. Young swimmers must be supported so that they can become world beaters when they mature. While one celebrates the champion, we also need to support him or her in their journey.
Currently, we have only a couple of sportsperson that are being supported, but what if we could have a mechanism wherein the top 50 in each sport will be supported for a period of 5-10 years. That could be a game-changer. Indeed, there are a few things changing, under the helm of Olympian sports minister Rajyavardhan Rathore in terms of scholarships and stipends. Things are changing, I only wish, they would at a faster pace.
Sometime back, an Australian swimming coach had made an observation that Indians are not physically suited for short-distance swimming like 50 or 100 metres, and should focus more on middle and larger distances like 400m or 800m. What's your take?
I feel that it is unfair to make such a generalised statement. How can one paint all Indian swimmers in one shade? Other than the 200m butterfly silver medal by Khajan Singh, a majority of our medals at international meets have come in the 50m events from pure thoroughbred sprinters. It is all dependent on the individual and what he or she is good at. If the same coach had sat down with his team and segregated them individually on basis of their talents, I could understand that. But stating that Indians are not attuned for short sprints is wrong.
Indian swimmers find it hard to compete against the Chinese or Japanese. What are the challenges they face?
There are many challenges, from financial support to infrastructure and so on. The top swimmers in India should have access to the same facilities that the best 30 in Japan or China have. And when I say best, it is not only coaching, because with Nihar Ameen and Pradeep Kumar we already have world-class coaches, but in terms of nutrition, in terms of recovery, in terms of fitness, advice. Today we have a world-class facility in Bengaluru, with the latest programs and techniques. This is where Virdhawal and Sandeep train. Now imagine, if we had such facilities available to the top 30 swimmers and not just a few handful. That would be a game-changer.
If you want Indian swimming achievement to be on par with the best swimmers in the world, give them the same facilities that are available to the best. We need to invest in the game like the Chinese, Japanese or the Koreans have done. Let's not wait for a talent like Srihari to emerge, let's nurture so many more of them at an early stage.
Where do Indian swimmers lack?
Let me talk from experience. When I was swimming, I was the best in the country in five events. I was setting the pace for the rest of the swimmers in India. But when I trained abroad, I was swimming with boys who were as fast as or faster than me. So, I was chasing them, and this helped improve my times. So our best, say top eight in each category and stroke, need this kind of exposure. They need to constantly race in meets abroad, train abroad and so on. Or else, they will be just pace-setters in India.
When an international world junior athlete travels, he or she has a support system, a masseuse, a physiotherapist, nutritionist, along with the coach. It is a whole team of support staff that makes one champion. Sajan Prakash has shown this improvement because, for the past six years, he has been training between coach Pradeep and Thanyapura in Thailand. It is this kind of exposure that can truly make a difference.
What needs be done to boost swimming in India?
Recognition on television is the key. Indian swimming needs to be telecast. For instance, look at the way kabaddi and hockey have taken off, thanks to the leagues and television exposure. Swimming senior nationals could be televised, or if there was a swimming premier league, that would bring in sponsors. Visibility is the key.
What are your views on the standard of swimming coaching in India?
At the top level, you have Nihar Ameen and Pradeep Kumar who are as good as the global ones or even better. The real issue is at the junior level. There needs to be a comprehensive program for these coaches so that they are on par. You need to invest in swimming, you need to invest in coaching as well. Just like the swimmers undergo programs and training, so must the coaches. While Nihar Ameen and Pradeep Kumar are great coaches, but only a couple of these aren't enough. We need hundreds of such world-class coaches across India. Just like for swimmers, there needs to be a comprehensive long-term planning and program for coaches as well. Especially, the junior coaches, as they are the ones who teach the nine-year-olds, and thereby lay a foundation.
Swimming also requires investment in infrastructure in terms of pools etc. How is the state of things in India?
The numbers are quite less, you have a great stadium in Talkotra in Delhi, a nice stadium in Hyderabad, a great academy in Bengaluru, but they are just not sufficient. We need world-class infrastructure in every state of India, not just a few cities. For instance, even in a smaller city like Perth in Australia, you will see 50 great swimming pools and 200 qualified coaches. Even a whole state in India can hardly match such numbers. In the end, it is the numbers and the quality. I feel that just having a few great academies and pool is not enough for a vast country like India that has so much potential and promise.
We tend to compare Indian swimmers with that from Australia and the US, but I wish to ask, whether we can really compare the kind of facilities and training that is made available to the Indian swimmers as that of abroad. For every question (on performance) that is put up by the cynic, an Indian athlete can throw back five. But then, we are not in the business of debates or arguments; as an athlete, we get up early in the morning and work hard to win laurels for the country. Indian sportspersons don't make excuses and quietly accept the limitations.
What's your take on Virdhawal, currently ranked as India's best swimmer, and his worries about the future, not being able to dedicate fully to swimming because of his job commitments (he is employed with the Maharashtra government)?
Tell me a thing, should a sportsman who has dedicated 20 years of his for sports in a country be even thinking about such a thing? Why should a swimmer of such class and calibre have to bother about his job and future? He should be focusing just on his training and trying to win glory in sports. The fact that an Indian athlete has to make a choice between security for the future and sports is sad. And unfortunately, all Indian athletes have to go through the same grind. At 26, I too had to make a conscious decision about whether I can continue swimming professionally or move on with my life. Virdhawal is going through the same grind. Imagine, he is one of the best swimmers that India has ever had, it is so sad that he has to worry as to how he would train for the next Olympics. Why should he have to worry? He was ranked top three in Asia couple of years ago, even in the current games he was in the top five. Why should an athlete who is this good, need to worry about the future? It is just not fair.
At most of the swimming meets in India, one comes across many excited parents shouting and coaxing their kids for medals. As an ace Indian swimmer, what would be your advice to them?
Swimming is a very hard sport in terms of the effort. It is a full-time commitment. So, if your kid chooses such a tough life, spending so many hours daily on training, parents just need to support them in the best way they can and make the sport enjoyable for the kid. Added pressure is of no use. Parents will harm the kids by putting constant pressure on results. Make the journey enjoyable for these budding sporting talent.
Shashwat DC is Features Editor (Special Projects) at CNBC-TV18