In this small Uttar Pradesh town, swimming has left cricket far, far behind. It is religion here. It is passion. And with the help of some bamboo poles, tons of enthusiasm and a couple of dedicated trainers, the people of the region are using the sport to give themselves a better life.
Locals do just about anything to have their children plunge into what have become the ‘golden’ waters of the Ganga. They sell off jewellery, borrow money from local creditors, ‘sahukars’, at high rates of interest, because they are convinced their children can learn under trainers and come back with national and international medals. And get jobs that will assure them a secure future.
“My son won gold medals and a silver, too!” is a line oft heard at get-togethers in the town. Proud parents discuss the exploits of their sons at various tournaments — the higher the number of medals won by their wards, the louder their voice.
Though the love for the sport is a pan-Chunar phenomenon, the Usmanpur and Gangeshwarnath localities are the ‘waterbeds’ of talent, with ‘a swimmer in every second house’, as a popular saying goes.
So, how does a small town like Chunar afford swimming pools and fancy training facilities? Well, it doesn’t. Instead, it makes do. By way of a pool, there is a bamboo enclosure within the river that creates a natural pool. Swimming against the current, 30-odd boys and girls hone their skills in that makeshift pool under the watchful guidance of former national swimmers Mahendra Prasad and his elder brother Shiv Prasad.
Even in the sweltering heat, the children put in everything they have. They practice, come what may. Except when monsoon floods render the Ganga out of bounds.
There are stories of families mortgaging everything they have, just to have that one shot at the sport. Bhola Nath Nishad’s is one such. “I borrowed Rs 2000 for my son to participate in the state trials, but he missed the mark by just a second,” he says, unhappiness writ large on his face. Then, however, he sounds hopeful again. “It’s just the beginning. I am confident that he will soon be winning medals at the nationals,” he says, as he gazes into nothingness, looking into a future that only he can see.
Why is there so much enthusiasm for a sport that isn’t one that India is particularly known for? Shiv Prasad, one of the first to send his son for the trials, answers: “The Ganga is our only recreational source, so we had nothing other than swimming to keep ourselves occupied. When my son, Kailash Nath, started winning medals at the district, state, national and then international levels, his success became a source of inspiration for others around Chunar,” a proud father says, showing off a big shelf adorned with the trophies and medals Kailash — now a DSP in the CRPF — has won.
Kailash won medals at the World Police Games in the 1500m, 400m and 3000m freestyle events. And before that he won a bronze at the Junior Asia Pacific Championship in New Delhi. And before Kailash’s tale, there was Nand Lal, who represented India in the 200m butterfly event.
Innovation has always been part and parcel of traditional sport in India. In Chunar, every Saturday, a wall-clock is hooked onto a pole in the water to check the swimmers’ timings. Every swimmer has to get his or her timing registered once a week, a practice that began in 1971.
<b1>Since equipment of any sort is not available in or around Chunar, locals buy arm-boards, kick-pads and pull boards only when their wards participate in the nationals. Otherwise, they use their own version of kick-pads made of plywood and glass paddles.
The town will soon have its first qualified swimming coach. Manoj Kumar Maurya, a native of Chunar, has just completed an NIS diploma in swimming. “Now, we have a qualified man, who would help the swimmers, technically,” says Shiv Prasad.
However, this fairytale could soon turn sour if the state government doesn’t come forward and help the swimmers financially. “Our swimmers are not getting their due in UP. Many youngsters have decided to join the Sports Authority of India’s Gandhinagar Centre,” says Prasad.
Kailash Nath Gupta, who sponsors young local swimmers, says: “Once they make it to the Centre, everything is taken care of by SAI, which is a big relief for their parents.”
Currently, 17 boys are training at the Gandhinagar Centre. Though fairly content with their lot, they do feel that the presence of an Olympic-size pool in the district can do wonders for the country’s medal hopes. “The river is full of stones, which means no one can dive. If we get a pool here, I can guarantee you that the swimmers have the ability to win medals at the Olympics too,” a confident Prasad says.
He, however, claims that sports ministers have been making promises since the last 15 years, but nothing has happened yet. But then, in true Chunar spirit, adds: “We have a big pokhra (pond), where all we need is a tube-well and our swimmers can train there too.” Some people never give up.