Ahaha, great guy you are, no?” The perky little girl, no more than five, is mocking her swim buddy, a 19-year-old with brooding, movie-star looks and a V-shaped athlete’s body. He ignores her jibe and poses easily for a photographer by the baby pool on an overcast Bangalore monsoon evening.
Virdhawal Khade, 19, could be marked for greatness. This languid, handsome teenager who has featured in Vogue swims four hours a day, spends two hours in the gym, eats a six-egg omelette and a kilo of meat every day and could have been an Olympic medal contender — if he were not an Indian swimmer.
Last month, Khade and his teammate Sandeep Sejwal created a bit of a sensation by qualifying for the London Olympics, Khade in the 100m freestyle and Sejwal in the 100m breaststroke. This followed Khade’s bronze in the 50m butterfly at the 2010 Asiad in Guangzhou, the first position for an Indian after Khazan Singh won silver 24 years ago in Seoul.
Khade is now the Indian national record holder in five swim events, the youngest ever — not bad for a boy who was once scared of swimming and kept at it only because his father, a former basketball player and jaggery commission agent from Kolhapur, insisted that nothing but gold would do.
Khade recalls how in the 2003 nationals, when he was 12, his father did not speak to him for a day because he got bronze. “I was scared, so I swam fast,” says Khade, smiling. “Because of that I can deal with more pressure than anyone in the Indian team.”
An Indian has never won an Olympic swim medal. It’s too much to expect one from Khade, however strong and confident he might be. But if he makes it to the first 10, it’ll show India that it’s possible to overcome disadvantages of physique, culture and the heavy hand of cricket.
Khade will say he hopes to reach the semi-finals, or maybe the finals, of the 50m and 100m events at the 2012 London Olympics. His highly rated trainer, Nihar Ameen, formerly a senior coach with an American swim team in Florida, says, cautiously, “The semi-finals are definitely a possibility.”
I ask Ameen — a portly man with bushy, grey moustache and intense eyes — of all the swimmers he has coached, American and Indian, how he’d rate Khade. “The best,” says Ameen. “He (Khade) and Sandeep are definitely world class.” Ameen pauses. “If only we had the support cricket has.”
It may sound clichéd, the old cricket-gets-it-all lament. But to appreciate how difficult it is to create an Indian world champion, consider what it takes to create any world champion in swimming. The best teams in the world — such as the Americans and the Aussies — deploy an army of support staff and the best science. To prime the human body to be 1/100th, even 1/1000th of a second faster, is to sift the best from the rest. The best have physiotherapists, strength-conditioning coaches, mental-conditioning coaches, experts in biomechanics, who use multiple underwater cameras, to analyse how a swimmer can shave off microseconds.
And what does team India have?
It has Ameen.
“I am a one-man army,” says Ameen, ruefully. There are no experts, no support staff, no underwater cameras in the 25m pool at Jain Heritage School, plonked among the narrow, uneven lanes of a Bangalore suburb.
Ameen has 30 swimmers under his charge, each paying him a fee so that he can make a living. That explains the children training with Khade and Sejwal, who now get some money from the government after qualifying for the Olympics.
While Khade says Ameen is “definitely one of the best coaches in the world”, he knows that isn’t enough. “You have to be hungrier than the coach,” says Khade.
With a year to go for the Olympics, there is much to do. The world record for the 100m freestyle is 46.91 seconds. Khade’s best, 49.4, came in 2008. It won’t be easy shaving off the microseconds when kids swim in the next lane.
And with the water in Bangalore getting colder, Ameen has to figure out how to raise money to take Khade and Sejwal to where it’s warm. If, after all this, Khade even makes it to the finals in London, we can truly call him great.