Tokyo Olympics 2020: Rivals-turned-teammates Varun Thakkar, KC Ganapathy set sails for glory

·6-min read

New Delhi: In less than three months from now, a school-dropout duo will vie for history at the Enoshima Yacht Harbour in Japan. While that sounds like a tantalising tale of grit and gamble, there is more to Varun Thakkar and KC Ganapathy, who will be competing in the 49er category in sailing at the Games.

The Asian Games bronze-medallists qualified for their maiden Olympics last month after finishing on top at the Mussanah Open Championships in Oman to join Vishnu Saravanan (Laser Standard) and Nethra Kumanan (Laser Radial) in country's Tokyo-bound sailing contingent.

For Thakkar and Ganapathy, it is an emotional landmark in their combined quest that started 10 years back. Academically, they followed the same route, dropping out of their respective schools to devote 8-9 hours a day to sailing, and completing open schooling. They started their careers at the same club in Chennai, which means they were on the same side in team events. However, as their careers progressed, they found themselves competing against each other at the national level.

Thakkar moved on to laser boats in 2008 but realised he didn't have the required height and weight for optimum performance. Ganapathy competed at the 2010 Asian Games in Optimist event and finished sixth. A year later, 29er boats were introduced in India and the two saw an opportunity.

"We decided to join hands after Ganapathy returned from the Asiad. I knew he was a better helm than me, so I decided to start rowing and Gana started to helm. That's how we became a team," Thakkar recalled at a virtual media conference arranged by the Sports Authority of India (SAI).

It was, for all practical purposes, a marriage of convenience, and like most such alliances, the first few months were tough. Arguments and differences were common, but the teens had the wisdom to work towards a common set of goals.

From 29er, they moved to 49er boats, and the once fractious duo is now, as Thakkar describes, "more than brothers or friends; we are each other's backbones." They better be, because sailing in choppy waters, navigating tides and weathering winds that can go up to 55 kmph does require clockwork precision.

"There is tremendous respect between us. We still argue, but even then, the goal is to work for the greater good and not pull each other down," said Ganapathy.

Both Thakkar and Ganapathy were traditionally helmers €" the sailor that guides the boat as per wind speed and current. However, Thakkar figured that his partner did a better job of it, and moved to rowing. It sounds a simple division of labour, but the arrangement is as critical as one person controlling the accelerator of the car, and the other navigating the steering.

Ganapathy explains: "In a conventional dinghy, the helm holds the main sail and the rudder. On a skiff (49er), the crew holds the main sail and I hold the steering. So, there has to be a lot of co-ordination. He (Varun) can't be accelerating when I am trying to brake. He is really good at the helm too; he used to beat me at the domestic level, which means the co-ordination is on point and we can help the boat going fast. On the 49er, both participants are equal. There is effectively no captain and a helmer. We are equal partners."

Their teamwork comes in handy while maintaining optimum weight as well. The boys are generally lean, but when it comes to packing muscles, as was the case in Oman, they have to understand their bodies and work in sync.

In March last year, ahead of the Olympics qualifier, they discovered that they were a bit light for the boat they were using. Luckily for them, the event was postponed due to COVID-19 outbreak and Thakkar used the time to put on 7-8 kilogrammes by working out and increasing his carbs intake.

Maintaining an optimum weight, usually around 160 kilogrammes, is crucial in 49ers, because it is the bodyweight that balances the rig (sails). Being lightweight helps when the wind velocity is low, but as the wind speed increases, a lightweight team has to 'depower' the rig earlier than 'heavier' teams, resulting in early loss of speed.

"There are various set-ups for the rig, from five knots of wind, which is the lowest the 49er sails in, to 30 knots. Until 10 knots, if you are a light team, it really helps you because you can run a powerful set up and move faster. When wind speeds reach between 10-17 knots, if you are light, you are depowering your rigs quicker than other guys who have more weight.

"If you depower the rig, it is like going in a race car with 20 horsepower less than the other guys, and that's going to affect your speed. So you end up compensating technically and tactically, and when you're racing in a good fleet, every little thing matters. You want to be in the correct weight so that you don't have to change your rig to a less power set up and lose the advantage," Ganapathy said.

The duo plans to spend the months leading upto the Olympics in Portugal, where six-seven qualified teams are already training. If, owing to the COVID situation, their Europe trip doesn't materialise, they'll be forced to make do with the quiet waters of Rameshwaram, 600 kilometres south of Chennai, which is where they did most of their training last year.

They also do not have a dedicated coach. They hired the services of experienced coach Ivan Stuart Warren who helped them to a podium finish at the Asian Games and also guided them at the Tokyo qualifiers in Oman, but whether the Aussie will travel with them to Tokyo is still anybody's guess. Thakkar and Ganapathy are the fifth team that Warren has sent to the Olympics.

"We took the money from our parents to hire Ivan. I hope the Yachting Association of India and SAI allow him to be at the Games for us," said Thakkar.

"We are the fifth team he has sent to the Olympics and he has tremendous experience in taking young sailors and helping them excel. With him, we are working on consistency to deliver good timings in every series," added Ganapathy.

Going into their maiden Olympics, the young sailors are sticking to a three-word formula that has served them well for a decade €" Trust the process. "We have a process and we trust it. We have been sailing for 10 years now and we never brood over the result. If results are bad, we know what needs to be worked on and where have we missed the process. That's what has kept us calm," said Thakkar.

Ganapathy and Thakkar's marriage of convenience has endured its share of tides. Come July, the boys will hit the high seas in Japan, sailing into a new dawn.

Also See: Tokyo Olympics 2020: In pandemic-affected year, Sharath Kamal confident of realising 17-year-old dream

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