SPORT

Can the Indian swimmers make a splash?

HOPES KINDLED: Thanks to better exposure, Indian swimmers such as Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal are slowly bridging the gap at the world level.

HOPES KINDLED: Thanks to better exposure, Indian swimmers such as Virdhawal Khade and Sandeep Sejwal are slowly bridging the gap at the world level.   | Photo Credit: — Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Kalyan Ashok

The ever-improving Khade will spearhead the campaign

It is a history of sorts for Indian aquatics. For the first time, the country will be fielding a four-member team at the Beijing Olympics.

The Indian squad will be spearheaded by the irrepressible Virdhawal Khade (who turns 17 on August 29), Rehan Poncha (23), Sandeep Sejwal (19) and the U.S.-based Ankur Poseria (21).

Though there is a huge gulf between the Indian swimmers and World champions such as Michael Phelps, Ian Crocker, Grant Hackett and Kosuke Kitajima, it is a welcome sign that the Indians are slowly bridging the gap. Better exposure and support from the government and the SFI have played a part in the revival.

Chipping in

The moment Khade qualified in the 200m freestyle, the Union Government announced a grant of Rs. 45 lakh for his training, and Lakshmi Mittal Champions’ Trust too chipped in with substantial help.

There were sceptics who wondered whether India would field even a single swimmer at the Beijing Olympics after FINA sharply raised the qualification marks in most events. But, the Indian quartet succeeded in making the cut.

The sensational Khade qualified in the 50m, 100m, and 200m freestyle events, Sejwal in 100m and 200m breaststroke, Poseria qualified in 100m butterfly and Poncha in 200m butterfly. At Beijing, the quartet would swim their individual races besides exploring the possibility of competing in the relay events as well.

Khade was the first to book the Beijing flight when he clocked 1:52.41s (qualifying time 1:52.53s) in the 200m freestyle in the World championship in Melbourne in 2007. It was in the 2007 senior Nationals that Poncha, who prefers the 400m freestyle and 400m individual medley, opted to qualify through the 200m butterfly. A silver-winning time of 2:03.58s set the ball rolling as Poncha shifted gears.

Between September 2007 and May 2008, while Poseria joined Khade by attaining the qualifying mark in the 100m butterfly, clocking 53.68s (qualifying time 54.71s) at the Husky international meet in USA in December 2007, the rest had to wait.

In March this year, Poseria also made the cut in the 50m freestyle, clocking 22.99s, at the NCAA invitation meet. However, the Los Angeles-based swimmer has opted to swim only in the 100m butterfly.

Golden run

After a ‘train and compete’ programme in Australia in March, Khade returned with a bang in the Malaysian Open in May. He won golds in the 50m and 100m and 400m freestyle and 50m butterfly. In the process, he also cracked the qualifying marks in the 50m and 100m freestyle. Khade clocked 23.03s in the 50m (qualifying time 23.13s) and 50.66s in the 100m freestyle (QT: 50.95s). He also set a new National record in the 400m freestyle with 4:01.87s.

Sejwal, too, made it in the 100m and 200m breaststroke. He clocked 1:03.58s in the 100m breaststroke (QT: 1:03.72s) and 2:18.23s in 200m breaststroke (QT: 2:18.37s).

Rehan was the last to clinch the berth as he swam the race of his life at the Telstra Grand Prix in Sydney early this month. He equalled Khazan Singh’s 22-year-old National record in the 200m butterfly (2:02.38s) in the heats and smashed that mark and qualifying time in the final, clocking 2:01.40 (QT: 2:01.79).

Sizzling show

As Poncha made the cut, Khade sizzled in the FINA World Youth championship at Monterrey in Mexico, further improving his personal and National best. He clocked 22.69 in the 50m freestyle, sinking Sebastian Xavier’s decade old National record of 22.89s. Khade also did 50.49s in the 100m and 1:50.35s in the 200m freestyle.

Khade has virtually dropped two to four seconds in all these events in the past 18 months and is currently tied for the top spot in the Asian ranking in the 50m freestyle with Masa Yuki Kishida of Japan. He is ranked 86th in the world.

For Khade, who is tipped to make the semifinals in the 50m freestyle, the Olympics will be the springboard to greater glory.

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