Mumbai: When a professional athlete misses five prime years of his sporting life due to unforeseen circumstances, the comeback at the highest levels becomes a gigantic effort. Swimmer Virdhawal Khade quickly emerged as India's biggest hope in the pool when he qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics at a young age of 16. In 2010, Khade went on to clinch a bronze medal in the 50m butterfly event at the Asian Games in Guangzhou. Just when he was picking up speed, Khade slipped into obscurity because of his job requirements as tahsildar with the Maharashtra government and also due to a knee injury. For five years from 2012-2017, Khade missed premium tournaments like the Olympics and Asian Games. For five years, India's biggest swimming hope struggled off the pool.
Since making his return to pool only last November, Khade has been gunning to find form and also few medals. At the recent Asian Games in Jakarta, the 27-year-old Khade missed a bronze medal in the men’s 50m freestyle by a whisker. Even after missing the sport for five years, he missed a medal only, and painfully, by one-hundredth of a second.
Ask him about this tough period and whether the thought of quitting the sport had crossed his mind, Khade denies it vehemently. " No, it (thought) didn't cross my mind. Frankly, the comeback was quite easy because mentally I had such a huge break so I had that tremendous drive. I felt like I missed quite a lot in those five years. I just trained hard and committed 100 percent committed to swimming. So, within a year since I started swimming again, coming close to an Asian Games medal, it's a huge positive for me," Khade spoke exclusively to Firstpost on the sidelines of the Speedo Invitational Swimming Championship in Mumbai.
Does he believe that he missed some of his prime years? Khade says, "It's hard to say. (Michael) Phelps swam till 31. (Ryan) Lochte is still swimming, he's 34 and Anthony Ervin won a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics when he was over 35 years of age. So I don't think in a sport like swimming, age matters a lot, especially if you're swimming only the 50 and the 100 metres races."
"I believe I have it in me what it takes. You know, it has always been a matter of less than half a second, the difference between me and winning a medal," Khade added.
With renewed hope and optimism, the Maharashtra swimmer now is asking for more financial support from the government. He wants his name to feature in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), enabling him to train abroad ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.
"Right now, there are only a few private sponsorships for a sport like swimming. Fortunately or unfortunately, we only have to depend on the government because they are the most approachable. I intend on performing well at the 2020 Olympics and I feel I need the support because in my events the margins are small," Khade said. "I would like to move abroad in the early part of next year. I don't want to take the risk of going before the Olympics so I want to move abroad and see if that works for me. But for something like that to happen, I need some support because I don't have the financial backing."
Khade stresses the importance of the funding part. He said when he started out young, he did not get much support from anywhere and ultimately he couldn't progress to highest levels. "Ten years ago, the government wasn't as involved as it is today. There was no TOP Scheme or Khelo India, if those things were available to me, then it could've been much more different. If I was 16 or 17 today and doing the race times I did then, I would probably be medalling at the Youth Olympics," Khade said to Firstpost on the sidelines of the Speedo Invitational Swimming Championship in Mumbai.
Swimming is not the most popular of sports in India. The sport, though, is highly popular, having featured in the all the modern Summer Olympics. Swimming in Olympics sees 34 events across men's and women's section, second only to athletics. Despite the sport's reputation at the world stage, India have been lagging behind for a very long time.
"Infrastructure-wise, we are lacking. I feel we have only three or four world-class standard swimming pools. We definitely need more of those in our country," Khade opined. "We also need more kids to be involved in the sport. Unfortunately, if you see my performances at seniors national, I have been winning them consistently, my records have stood for years. Sandeep (Sejwal) has been dominating breaststroke for the last 10-12 years. This needs to change and it will only happen if more kids are getting involved," Khade added.
Khade also makes a pertinent point about attracting talents from smaller cities. In cities like Mumbai or Bengaluru, getting access to a swimming pool is easy and most Indian swimmers come from big cities. But Khade believes there's a lot of talent in smaller cities and towns and they should be given a platform to show and hone their skills.
Talking about spotting talents, Khade feels competitions like Speedo Invitational Swimming Championship are useful, where young swimmers from schools and clubs are given a platform to impress. "Swimmers train to participate in competitions, the more opportunities they get, the sooner they'll realise that they have something special in them. We need more such competitions happening all over India. If parents realise that their kids do have the talent, they might also start thinking about sending them abroad."
So the idea of India winning a medal in Olympics, is it too far? Khade says, "Not really. When I jumped on the scene, I was 15 and within a year or two, I made to Olympics. If you're naturally talented and gifted and you put in a couple of years of hard work, you can definitely reach the Olympic final. Swimming is such a sport where if you have a natural feel of water then anything can happen."
Updated Date: Oct 30, 2018 14:58 PM