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A beacon in a sea of darkness

Mark Williams' greatest strength is that he enjoys shooting from the hip at all times and does so with careless abandon, writes MICHAEL FERREIRA.

THE QUEST for excellence is a major driving force which makes a true champion. Few sportspersons have that rare quality in abundance. Very few strive hard to keep that winning streak. In a difficult sport like swimming to sustain that consistency is even more hard. Nisha Millet is a different kettle of fish.

Nisha's feats have always shone like a beacon in a sea of darkness. When Nisha became the lone Indian swimmer to qualify for this summer Olympics in Sydney, she had only re-affirmed her total commitment for the sport.

The 18-year-old Bangalore swimmer, had gone through a lot of career swings in the past, including unexpected injuries, but she had always kept her faith all through the dark times. Nisha, who first won her senior National title in Goa in 1994 as a 12-year- old, has recurrent theme for a dream. Strains of Jana Gana Mana in the air and tricolour flutters as she stands on the victory podium. That vision has almost become an obsession for Nisha, who aims to make that picture, the ultimate freeze shot of her career.

For the past four months Nisha has been training in Australia under an IOC Solidarity Scholarship which is bound to make a lot of difference to her fortunes. That she became the first Indian sportsperson to be accorded this honour was an achievement and the scholarship envisaged a year long training for Nisha, from September 1999 to September 2000, but thanks to bureaucratic delay, she was able to go Down Under only in January 2000.

For Nisha, who holds five National records (in the 50,100, 200, 400 freestyle events and 100 m back stroke), the immediate task in Perth was to get back into shape after a long lay off. She had missed the 1999 National championship in Mumbai in November due to a recurring back trouble and she had to start afresh when she began training in Western Australian State swim centre in Perth.

Her first international meet in 2000 was the Asian championship at Pusan in March which turned out to be a mixed bag. Though not rested fully, she broke the National record, by going under one minute (59.42 seconds) and finished sixth overall in the event. The timing in the 200 and 400, however,was far below her best. ``The reason is, I was travel weary and not tapered fully for the meet, my Australian coach was keen that I taper for the Australian junior meet in April. But the fact that I was able to get under one minute in the Asian Championship, put me in the right frame of mind'', said Nisha.

Returning back to base (Perth),she set her eyes on the pet event - the 200 m freestyle and the intensive work-outs were focussed on her speed work. ``By the time the event came around, I was tapered fully and I was able to do my best - 2:06.62 in the final after clocking 2:06.80 in the heats.'' She finished seventh. That she did in the face of stiff competition from swimmers from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa was a laudable feat. Nisha, with that effort booked her berth for the Olympics. She capped off her qualification, with another good swim, shaving one hundredth of a second from her Pusan mark in the 100 m freestyle (59.41 secs). But she is not resting on her laurels.

``The aim is to cut the 200 time down further, may be to around 2:04, in the Australian Olympic trials, starting in Sydney on May 13. I reckon that should be a good one by international standards, besides that I will try hard to qualify in the 100 and 400 freestyle events as well,'' said Nisha.

The training in Perth is specialised for the freestyle events and it is an exhaustive affair as she puts close to nine hours in the pool under the watchful eyes of Bernie Mulroy, a chief coach with the Western Australian Swim Association, who is also one of the coaches for the Australian Olympic team. Nisha finds the schedule in Australia a much better stuff than the one she had in Phoenix, USA a year ago. ``I have adapted very well to the conditions here and I feel my stint in the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre under Pradeep Kumar has given a solid base for the advanced training here,'' said Nisha.

``Our team in Perth is the third best in Australia and I love training here and some of my favourite swimmers are right there swimming with me like Julia Greville and Rachel Harris, two of the best known freestyle swimmers in Australia'', said Nisha.

What impressed Nisha most in Australia was the attitude. ``The average sportsperson has that never-say-die spirit, when the whole lot of them around you are so committed, it really rubs on you''.

An Olympic debut will be the high point in her career and she is all excited about it and now that she has got there, she is determined to cement her place in international swimming.

``I am definitely aiming higher, I got this far, thanks to this IOC Scholarship, SFI and my family and friends support and now it is up to me to make most of my chance'', said Nisha.

If she does get around to doing a 2:03 or 2:02, she will truly be World class, ``I would rate that among the top three Asian performance in the event and I hope, she also cuts down the 400 freestyle time drastically in Australia'', said Pradeep Kumar, her BAC coach. But once she really makes it to that bracket, it is imperative that she maintains that high standard. For that, she needs to train and compete abroad.

``Now that she likes it in Australia, I think we should keep her there for a longer period. We are looking at options where she can get an University scholarship and continue her training beyond the IOC Scholarship period which ends in September'', said Mr. Aubrey Millet, Nisha 's father.

``We did get offers from USA and Canada, but we would prefer Down Under for the system is highly specialised with a separate expert dealing with every subject like swimming, bio-mechanics, weight training. Secondly, Australia is nearer home and thirdly Australia is the No. 1 Swimming power'', said Aubrey, citing valid reasons for Millet's preferences.

Nisha gives her career span of another decade and that means her best is yet to come. Being a good student, she doesn't want to ignore academics either and she plans to major in sports psychology.

The Millets as a family, have sacrificed a lot for their daughter's career and though the IOC scholarship, was God sent, Nisha needs sustained support, that is proving increasingly difficult to find in this cricket crazy country.

The Millets aren't complaining and hope that someday, Nisha will do to swimming what Leander has done to tennis in the country. She has now caused ripples. Can a big splash be far behind?



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