A beaming Virdhawal Khade standing on the podium flaunting his medal in the 2010 Asian Games has been one of the most enduring images of Indian swimming. His bronze in the 50m butterfly ended the country's agonisingly long wait for success in a sport where Khajan Singh was the last swimmer to bag an Asian Games medal way back in 1986. Khade's heroics challenging the Chinese and Japanese supremacy — the powerhouses of Asian swimming — was a big motivation for one of his close friends and training partner, Sandeep Sejwal. Sejwal went on to bag a bronze medal at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, India's sole medal in swimming. These achievements were expected to turn the tide but the Indian swimmers hardly caused any ripples in the big international meets in the last four years.
Indian hopes for a medal from the turquoise blue waters of the aquatics centre at the GBK Sports Complex in Jakarta in this edition of the Asian Games are pinned once again on Khade, Sejwal and Sajan Prakash, one of India's rising stars. But going by their current form, all three will need to improve on their personal best timings to come close to a podium finish.
Khade's main focus in Jakarta will be the 50m freestyle. The 26-year-old has recently clocked a personal best time of 22.52 seconds but he will need to shave off a further 0.5 seconds for a shot at the bronze medal. The Japanese and the Chinese are once again expected to dominate the event with the likes of Katsumi Nakamura and Yu Hexin in the fray. Nakamura and Hexin were declared joint winners after being tied for the first place in the Asian Championship two years ago clocking identical 22.03 seconds with the bronze medal bagged by Shunichi Nakao who had a time of 22.41 seconds.
"I will need to work on my starts which will be the key. Because of my knee surgery last year, my start is still not perfect though I have made a good recovery. If I can plug this hole in my technique, I can match up with the best in the business. In terms of fitness, I am stronger than I have ever been," says Khade in an exclusive chat with Firstpost. He has been training at the state of the art swimming facility at the Padukone Dravid Centre of Sports Excellence in Bengaluru.
Khade's medal in Guangzhou earned him adulation and recognition among the swimming fraternity. But soon the medal began to lose its sheen as the frustrated youngster was left high and dry without any financial help for further training. Disillusioned with the lack of support, he took a sabbatical from the sport and was employed with the Maharashtra state government. While his competitors from around the world and his training partners were getting ready for the Asian Games, Olympics and Commonwealth Games, Khade would be peering through thick files on slum rehabilitation or electoral ballots, as part of his job in various state government agencies.
"I was posted in areas where there was no swimming pool. But once I got a transfer to Mumbai after serving a couple of years in the smaller towns and cities, I was able to make a comeback and my passion for swimming was reignited. I wanted to give another shot at glory," says Khade.
"He is back with a vengeance and he is mentally stronger. Even if he returns without a medal in Jakarta, he is in for a long haul. He is 26 so he has a couple more years of top-flight swimming left in him. He can develop into a strong medal contender for the Tokyo Olympics and that is something we are working on," says Nihar Ameen who has been coaching Khade for over a decade.
A couple of weeks ago, the Indian upstaged the Olympic champion Joseph Schooling to win a gold in the 100m freestyle at the Singapore National Championships. Though this is not the pet event for both the swimmers, the victory over an Olympic gold medallist in an international meet is the perfect shot in the arm for Khade before the Asian Games.
Sandeep Sejwal won the 50m breaststroke bronze in the last Asian Games but has not managed to set the pool on fire since then. An ankle injury robbed him of a chance to make it to the Indian team for the Commonwealth Games. However, he is back in the hunt with a personal best timing of 27.59 seconds at the Singapore Open. "We are looking to bring it down by 0.3 to 0.5 seconds for a medal in Jakarta. He looks in good shape and is training hard," says Ameen.
Sajan Prakash, fresh from a training stint in Durban under Graham Hill who shaped the career of former Olympic and world champion Chad le Clos, is happy with his current progress. The 24-year-old is gunning for a medal in the 200m butterfly. "It is an event that is not entirely a sprint event but it also tests your endurance, which is a big challenge," says Prakash from his training base in Bengaluru. He has been taking part in tournaments in Italy and Monaco, in the run-up to the Asian Games but his best performance came in the Malaysian Open this year where he clocked 1:58.08.
"I am looking to bring it down to 1.56.00. I seem to have a good timing in the first half of the race but I lag behind in the last laps. I am working on lowering my stroke count per lap which will help me to spend less energy during the third and the fourth lap when the body is exhausted."
The likes of Sajan and Khade have their eyes on the Tokyo Olympics and therefore, their performance in the Asian Games will be a big test to judge their preparedness for Tokyo 2020.
Sreehari Nataraj created ripples in the Senior Nationals when the seventeen-year-old bagged gold medals in the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke. The Commonwealth Games in Gold Coast was his first major international event at the senior level and he created a new national record in the 100m backstroke. At the Asian Games, the youngster will take part in the three backstroke events but has his focus on the 200m backstroke. He has a daunting task of improving upon his personal best timing of 2 minutes 4 seconds to around 1 minute 56 seconds to come in medal contention.
So rather than battling it out for a medal, the Asian Games will be more of an international exposure for him much like the other two youngsters in the squad- Neel Roy and Advait Page. Seventeen-year-old Page had a successful outing in the Singapore National where he created a new national record in the men's 1500m freestyle.
Unfortunately, none of the Indian women swimmers could meet the qualification standard, exposing severe dearth of talent. The women swimmers had three opportunities – Junior Nationals, Senior Nationals and the Federation Cup- to qualify but none of them could attain the timings.