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Swimming against the tide

Sandeep Sejwal hasn’t won any medals in Beijing. In other words, this 6-foot swimmer from Lado Sarai, Delhi, isn’t returning a hero, writes Kshitij Prabhat Bal.

india Updated: Aug 22, 2008 22:10 IST
Kshitij Prabhat Bal
Kshitij Prabhat Bal
Hindustan Times

Sandeep Sejwal hasn’t won any medals in Beijing. In other words, this 6-foot swimmer from Lado Sarai, Delhi, isn’t returning a hero. And yet, even as he didn’t qualify in the 100 m and 200 m breaststroke semifinals, he set new national marks in both events. Not good enough to make it anywhere close in the choppy waters of Olympics swimming, Sandeep still feels that something has been gained.

The 19-year-old isn’t disheartened. Instead he excitedly says straight out of the water of the Khazan Singh pool near Jawaharlal Nehru University (this isn’t his usual practice pool, that’s in Bangalore), “I don’t swim for money. I enjoy it and crave only for glory.” After his “disappointing” performances in the 100 m and 200 m events, the new national record holder has now set his eyes on the 2010 Commonwealth Games — and the 2012 London Olympics. “I’m only 19,” he reminds us. “I have a long way to go and a medal to win.”

Sandeep lives with his mother who has brought him up singlehandedly since his father died when he was two. But financial constraints and the pressures “to get a good education, a job and to settle down” have not stopped Sandeep from aiming high and dreaming big. According to the swimmer, “Most kids today participate in sports to get into a good university and then,

perhaps, a government job. They want a normal life with friends, family and good money. But I’m ready to sacrifice it all. All I know is swimming.”

Though he’s aware of the brutal fact that he is perhaps unlikely to receive any financial support from the government or a corporate sponsor for his training, he is looking at the next four years as a phase of determined preparation. “If I can shave off 1.5 and 3.5 seconds off my times in my two events (100 m and 200 m breaststroke) in less than six months of training prior to the Commonwealth Games, then in four years I can do the impossible.”

Sandeep, however, isn’t one to take credit away from the government. The swimming federation sponsored the four Olympic qualifiers to participate in camps in Australia and the US for the final stages of their Olympic preparation. These camps with foreign coaches, a regulated diet, regular meets, international level facilities and infrastructure, and a chance to interact with world-class swimmers from all over were what made the crucial difference.

Despite him coming 36th and 38th in the 100 m and 200 m breaststroke preliminaries in Beijing, the gap between him and the qualifying time for the semifinals was less than a second. “We were swimming with giants like Michael Phelps and Alain Bernard,” he says. World records are broken in every heat. Back home, there is only a single meet in a year — and I’m faster than the next best swimmer by over seven seconds.” Sandeep complains that there is no one to pace himself with in India. “Out there, I was going for meets every weekend and finding people faster and better than me. It gave me a reason to raise my own performance,” he says.

But at the heart of it all, Sandeep is still a child. Hearing him talk about his experience in Beijing is like hearing a 10-year-old recount his visit to the fair. He can’t stop gushing about the Olympic village, the ‘Water Cube’— the innovative Olympic swimming stadium — and the pretty female athletes he met. He proudly shows off his Speedo LZR racer suit that was presented by the swimming accessories company to every participating swimmer so as to level the playing field. He holds it up like a precious object, grinning ear to ear as he says, “I shall only wear this for my races. For practice, trunks will do.”

Another memory he cherishes is witnessing the eight gold medal haul of American swimming phenomenon Michael Phelps. “It was the most inspiring experience of them all. He’s a monster to look at, but he swims like a beauty. People paid thousands of dollars to see the feat — I saw it for free!”

So what does he think about the ‘physical and physiological superiority’ of American and Australian swimmers? Are Indians just not built to swim? Sandeep gives a knowing smile and says, “It’s not about size anymore. It’s all about technique.”

At Beijing, before an audience of more than 10,000 people, he clocked a time of 1:02:19 in the 100 m breaststroke event — two seconds faster than the previous national record held by him. As for now, Sandeep has BA exams and college to worry about. “For two months, no swimming. Just studying,” he says matter of factly.

Our country may be busy felicitating our three Olympic heroes, but it seems mighty strange that no one is taking any note of a national record holder. And — who knows? — a future Olympic hero.