OTHERS

Eagerly looking forward to Sydney

MAKING IT to the Olympics squad is a dream that almost every sportsperson cherishes in this land. Swimmer S. H. Hakimuddin has realised his fantasy after a series of emotional highs and lows. He snatched the sole `free' quota berth among the male swimmers of the country despite not being able to meet the qualification time in the 200m freestyle. He made it because he was the closest to making it. And the reward was a ticket to the Sydney Olympics.

A sixth semester student of electrical and electronics at Bangalore's BMS College of Engineering, Hakimuddin finds it ``unbelievable'' that he has indeed made it to the Indian contingent. ``Till recently I didn't think my timing was good enough. Honestly, I never thought I would get there (for the Olympics). But I have worked very hard to reach this far,'' says the bespectacled Hakimuddin, who turns 21 on September 25, the day he is due to catch the return-flight from Sydney.

Modest and a man of few words, Hakimuddin had to face several anxious moments before making the team. There were several detractors who thought Hakimuddin was not good enough to represent the country in the Olympics. As it turned out, in the Asia-Pacific swimming and diving meet in Kaohsiung (Chinese Taipei) on August 5, Hakimuddin swam to the 200m freestyle bronze in 1:56.11 to clip 2.22 seconds off his National record. Though Hakimuddin fell short of the Olympic qualifying mark of 1:55.32, he had proved that if there was one male swimmer who deserved to represent the country on current form, it was him. He joined qualifier Nisha Millet as the second Indian swimmer to enter the Sydney Games.

Since taking up swimming for fun as an eight year old, Hakimuddin has come a long way. After a seven-year stint at Bangalore's Aqua Marine pool under M. R. Mohite, Hakimuddin moved to the more promising and newly-opened K. C. Reddy Pool. It was at the `KCR' that he blossomed under coach Nihar Amin.At a time when Hakimuddin was trying to maintain a healthy balance between his swimming and academics, poolmate J. Abhijith was making waves. He was virtually unbeatable and the only man coming close was Hakimuddin. ``Both trained hard and the presence of one, had a positive effect on the other,'' says Hakimuddin who seldom managed to shake off consistency with which he remained second best to Abhijith.

But considering that Hakimuddin was equally good in academics (having scored in excess of 80 per cent in class X and XII exams) and juggled his time between swimming and studies, the results from the pool still look impressive. After consistently winning medals in almost every event he took part in, at the National level, in 1997, Hakimuddin chose to cut down on his participation and began to concentrate only on a select few.

Unbeaten in the country in the 200m freestyle for the last four years, Hakimuddin feels that somehow this event suits him just right. ``In the 100m freestyle, Sebastian Xavier was undoubtedly the best while in the 400m, I found Kailash Nath doing better. But in the 200m, I think I am more comfortable and execute my plan well,'' says Hakimuddin with the confidence of an undisputed champ over the distance.

Talking about the stagnation that one witnessed in his timings, Hakimuddin said that he could not train the way he wanted. ``I think my 45- day training at the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fortlauderale (Florida) early this year, helped me a great deal. I got my focus back and began training harder. Thereafter, in the Asian championship at Pusan, I was keen to do well but the circumstances leading to the heats did not leave me in the right frame of mind to give it my best shot. Still, I did 1:58.54 and just missed a place in the semifinals. But I have been working hard ever since then. My aim was to make it to Sydney and I nearly qualified. It could have been better to achieve the qualifying mark but still, I know my best has earned me an Olympic berth.''

Hakimuddin's immense self-belief and a cluster of well-wishers have combined to see him through many disturbing phases of life.

There were occasions when he almost decided to give up swimming and concentrate only on studies. He was ignored for the 1998 Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur despite being the best in the country. Again last year, when New Delhi hosted the 1999 Asia Pacific meet, Hakimuddin was kept on tenterhooks before being included in the squad at the last minute.

At present, Hakimuddin prefers not to be reminded of those experiences and looks ahead. ``Being in the Olympic squad itself is a great honour. The feeling has not sunk in yet. I am eagerly looking forward to give my best. Today, if I have reached this far, it is only because of my well-wishers; parents (Shabbir and Fakhera), brother (Mohammed), the principals and staff of St. Joseph's High School and BMS College of Engineering, all my mates who have helped me catch up with my studies and my coach Nihar `Sir', who I think is the best coach I could have hoped to get. Right through, they all have remained sources of encouragement. I cannot thank them enough,'' says an emotion-filled Hakimuddin.

RAKESH RAO

New Delhi

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