More women must take the plunge: Nethra Kumanan on sailing, sacrifice and making it to the Olympics
Growing up in Chennai, Nethra Kumanan tried different extracurricular activities every summer — tennis, skating, basketball, football, Kalaripayattu, karate, painting, Bharatanatyam. “You name it and I probably did it,” she says.
Her parents had one objective for her and her brother every summer: find a camp. “We used to take them to as many as possible,” her father, VC Kumanan, says. “And Nethra took a keen interest in most of them.”
One of these summer camps was organised by the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association. “I don’t think anything I did was as intriguing as sailing. To understand nature, you know,” Kumanan says, smiling. “The ocean, the wind, the temperature, the tide… just everything about it was intriguing.”
She was 12 the year she started sailing. Now 23, Kumanan has just become the first Indian to earn an Olympic spot in sailing. The nine Indian sailors who have participated in the Games so far, all men, participated through continental quotas. Kumanan won her spot by finishing as the best Asian, and second overall, at the Laser Radial event in last week’s Mussanah Open Championship in Oman.
Laser Radial is a classification in dinghy sailing, a single-handed boat sailed by one person.
From the start, Nethra found sailing more rewarding than anything else she’d tried, VC Kumanan says. Within a couple of years, she was winning medals in national age-group competitions. Part of the reason, she admits, was that she faced minimal competition as a woman in a niche sport. “There aren’t many girls in sailing in India,” she says.
Still, focusing on sailing meant Kumanan’s studies had to take a backseat. She lost four academic years while she focused on the seas, and is currently in the second year of her graduate degree in mechanical engineering, in the same class as her 19-year-old brother Naveen. “They will probably graduate together. The way Kumanan’s sailing career is going, she might well be a year later than him,” says VC Kumanan, who owns a software company. “But that’s all right,” he adds with a laugh.
Sailing also meant giving up Bharatanatyam, which Kumanan studied for six years under the legendary dancer Alarmel Valli. But her parents supported her at each turn, and for this she is very grateful, Kumanan says. “We made it work. Yes, I’m quite late with my studies, but I think it paid off to take the gamble and make that sacrifice in the end,” she says.
After producing consistent results in India — she won consecutive national titles in 2015 and 2016 — Kumanan sailed overseas in search of better coaching and training, spending time in Israel, Italy and Malta, among other places. In 2017, the Yachting Association of India nominated her for World Sailing’s Emerging Nations Programme, which mentors young sailors, particularly women, from emerging countries. It gave Kumanan time with some of the world’s best coaches and talents, for a couple of months in Aarhus, Denmark.
Competing in a sport as expensive as sailing, it helped that Kumanan was also supported by the non-profit GoSports Foundation, under its Stars of Tomorrow programme. All the international exposure started to reflect on her performance. At the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Kumanan ended fifth in Laser Radial. At the 2020 Hempel World Cup Series held in Miami, she won a bronze, the first Indian woman to win a World Cup medal in her sport.
The World Cup show came months after Nethra signed up to train with Hungary’s Tamas Eszes, a two-time Olympian sailor turned coach, at the Sailing Academy Gran Canaria, based in Spain’s Canary Islands.
“I saw Nethra sailing for the first time in 2015. Since then, I have always kept an eye on her,” Eszes says. “My impression was that she definitely had a good feeling in the boat, but from 2015 to 2019 she was not improving well enough. So we started to work on the details, taking advantage of the lockdown.”
Kumanan spent the entirety of the lockdown in Gran Canaria, training with the cream of Spain’s women sailors. More than a year of dedicated work improved her sailing and her fitness levels in a physically gruelling individual event made up of multiple races spread across a week.
Training involved weekdays spent lifting 100-kg weights and weekends spent cycling 100 km at a stretch, along with other trainees. In-between she made time for her virtual engineering classes as well.
“Staying there turned out to be a blessing. We had a lot of time to put the work in. Sailing is an experience sport and a good amount of racing is important,” Kumanan says. “I had a lot of time by myself to work on my sailing, my routines, my nutrition and my mental abilities.”
Kumanan wants to use this year’s Tokyo Games as a springboard for a possible shot at a medal in the 2024 Paris Olympics. In the meantime, she hopes her appearance at the Games will inspire more women to take the plunge. “If I can do it, anyone can,” she says.
SAILING AT THE OLYMPICS
* Sailing made its Olympics debut at the 1900 Paris Games. It was meant to be part of the first Summer Olympics in 1896 but the events were cancelled due to adverse weather conditions.
* The Tokyo Olympics will have 10 sailing events. Each event comprises either 10 or 12 heats across four to five days, with an inverse scoring system. The top 10 sailors are those with the lowest scores, and they qualify for the medals race. The final standings are decided by the lowest aggregate scores across all races.
* For the first time, four Indians have made the cut in three sailing events at the Olympics: Nethra Kumanan (Laser Radial), Vishnu Saravanan (Laser Standard) and the pair of KC Ganapathy and Varun Thakkar (49er).
* Great Britain tops all-time medals chart in sailing, with 28 gold, 19 silver, and 11 bronze medals, followed by the US (19 gold, 23 silver, 18 bronze) and Norway (17 gold, 11 silver, 3 bronze).