As he looks back at his heyday, India’s best known swimming champ Khajan Singh discuss why we have failed to create more heroes in the sport

He swam to keep his father’s memory alive. He was nearly drowned once before elder brother Balkishan pulled him out of the pond in Delhi’s Munirka area. It was terrifying but it was inspiring too. Khajan Singh Tokas vowed that day to learn swimming and make a mark. “A pity that my father did not live to see his son make a mark,” lamentsed Khajan, the best known Indian swimmer.

Khajan was India’s first swimmer to have won a medal in the Asian Games. His 200m butterfly silver at the Seoul Asian Games in 1986 was a benchmark. The achievement made swimming a popular competition. Children thronged pools across the country to emulate Khajan but none has shown the talent to achieve similar feats. It pains him that swimming has not grown. “Facilities have improved. Kids have better access to pools but we are not producing champions. The reasons are many but lack of talent is not the one,” he says, relaxing in his house at Vasant Kunj.

“This,” Khajan draws a huge picture with his arms, “was jungle. Today, it houses thousands. We dreaded coming here. Wild animals roamed in what is Vasant Kunj today.” He hailed from a family where youngsters were taught to swim essentially to prevent them from drowning. “There was this pond near our house and kids loved to play there. Chances of someone drowning were always great. I almost drowned once.”

The pond and the Baba Ganganath Temple were part of his daily chores. “The water used to be clean and later people brought buffaloes to the pond. Our swimming stopped but resumed at nearby Naoroji Nagar. I learnt and then began competing. It was fun because I won from the first competition that I went to. And then I became a swimmer to live my father’s dream.”

He continues, “To tell the truth I always wanted to be a swimmer. I had the talent and being the youngest I was encouraged too. I was 16 when I lost my father. I swam because I knew that was what my father wanted me to.”

There was a funny incident which Khajan remembers only to laugh at himself. “I swam 90 per cent of the length of the pond and feared I may struggle to reach the bank. So I turned back, little realising that the 10 per cent left was better than the 90 per cent.” That scramble to safety highlighted his endurance and he grew in confidence.

As Khajan made waves in the pool, he came to be recognised as a medal hope in a sport that needed a hero. His coaching stint under Australian Eric Arnold turned out to be a significant phase in Khajan’s career. “Eric was my mentor. He was a very kind man and pushed me to improve my timings. I stayed three years with him (in Newcastle) and became a better swimmer. The silver at Seoul happened because of his coaching.” Arnold passed away two years back but Khajan has stayed in touch with his family.

Khajan believes it is important that a sport has an icon to attract youngsters. “Look at cricket. It is so big because it has heroes. You can look at making a career in cricket. Not so in most other sport in India. Boxing and wrestling can be exceptions because they have produced heroes in Vijender Singh and Sushil Kumar. An Olympics medal means a lot. A medal makes careers. When I returned from the Asian Games, film stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Nana Patekar offered to raise funds to improve facilities for swimming. But our bosses (at Swimming Federation of India) did not agree. We still have not come out of their negative mindset.”

Khajan’s elder brothers, Balkishan and Dharampal, contributed to swimming too. The Tokas clan made Munirka their home 300 years ago. “We were warriors, more into wrestling and boxing. My family, however, insisted on education and encouraged swimming too.” Khajan remembers the days when he and his friends would run from Munirka to Safdarjang Enclave for a class of swimming. “We hardly saw cars on the roads. Today there is hardly space to park. We would run to the pool and back home to save money.”

With the London Olympics on, he says the event “is about dreaming big. It is no more about participation. It is about recognition for a nation. When an individual wins, it is his country that rejoices. We have not matched the development pace of other countries. We wake up once every four years and demand medals from our athletes. That is not fair. Our athletes work very hard but we need to be realistic and not dismiss them with outlandish expectations. We have to identify our strong areas and plan for 2020 from now. Time management is poor in most federations.”

Khajan met Charulata Rao, his wife, through sports. It was during the camps for the Seoul Asiad. She was an international shooter and he became her most precious target after five years of courtship. Charulata describes Khajan as an “honest person, a caring husband and very affectionate father to son Sahil (19) and daughter Vilobhana (13). He loves helping people, most times going out of the way to ensure they succeed.”

Having joined the Central Reserve Police Force as a sub-inspector, Khajan, 48, is a Deputy Inspector General now. He loves the Delhi of 40 years ago but has learnt to cope with the modern demands of the city. “I wish the authorities do something about the traffic and population. Law and order needs improvement but it is a great city to live in. Sports helps you grow and I am happy to have served the nation.”