At 14, Ridhima hopes to make a splash at World Short Course Swimming
- Ridhima returned with 14 gold medals and one silver at the junior and senior swimming national championships where she beat Tokyo Olympian Maana Patel thrice. The performance earned the youngster a spot in the four-member Indian team for the FINA World Short Course Championships in Abu Dhabi in December.
Her mother spoke about it with some conviction. “You may not feel like you’re talking to a 14-year-old girl, because she is so professional about swimming. Otherwise, she is so kiddish,” Sunita Kumar said. Trust her to aptly describe her daughter, swimmer Ridhima Veerendra Kumar.
It’s Diwali day, yet Ridhima is in the pool at the Basavanagudi Aquatic Centre (BAC) in Bengaluru for her two training sessions split into three hours each. The cheesecake, her runaway favourite according to the mother, can wait. “It can get a bit exhausting sometimes,” Ridhima said of her training. “But that’s what I like about it. I love the pain. I work for the pain.”
She experienced a fair bit of it during the back-to-back junior and senior National Aquatic Championships in Bengaluru from October 19 to 29. Ridhima returned with 14 gold medals (8 individual) and one silver from both the championships, participating in 16 events over a period of 10 days with a two-day gap between them. The performance earned the youngster a spot in the four-member Indian team for the FINA World Short Course Championships in Abu Dhabi in December.
Her prominent gold efforts came in the senior 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke finals, in which the teen beat Tokyo Olympian Maana Patel with a timing of 29.94s (Maana finished 2nd in 30.26s), 1:04.40s (2nd, 1:05.31s) and 2:21.58s (4th, 2:28.96s), respectively. In the junior championships preceding it, Ridhima pocketed the 50m (29.94s) and 100m (1:04.87s) backstroke gold, breaking Maana’s meet records from 2014 in both.
The back-to-back nationals followed a state meet and an international event in Belgrade in September, a frenetic two months of competitive grind for the Bengaluru swimmer after a year-and-a-half long pause due to the pandemic. “The last day (of the nationals) I had to push really hard. Only my mind worked, not my body,” she said. Lining up with, and eventually beating, a freshly-inducted Olympian could be daunting as well as awe-inspiring for a rising teen. For Ridhima, it was neither. “I swim my race my way,” she said of competing with the 21-year-old Maana, who could not qualify for the semifinals of the 100m backstroke in Tokyo. “Yes, it was there in my mind, but it wasn’t a major part of what I thought before the race. I just did my best, focused on my goal and my time.”
In the 2019 senior nationals too, Ridhima pipped Maana for gold but it was after the Gujarat swimmer was disqualified and her gold handed to the second-placed Ridhima. “That gave me the confidence. That’s when I started working much harder,” she said. Ridhima was among the youngest in that senior meet, and in the same year, had won the 50m and 100m backstroke bronze medals at the South Asian Games—Maana won both those races—and secured a first ever medal at the Asian Age-Group Championships (silver).
“She is a very committed kid with a strong mindset,” said John Christopher, her coach at BAC. “She has good physical and mental resources to sustain the pressure. Her temperament at this age is her biggest asset.”
It doesn’t seem too long ago that a five-year-old Ridhima tagged along with her father—a national-level volleyball player in his days—to drop her elder brother for his basketball training at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in the outskirts of Bengaluru. “It’s there that she first discovered the pool and showed instant interest,” Sunita recalled.
None in their sporting family are swimmers, yet there was a strong connect between Ridhima and the pool. “Even during our holidays, before going to my room, the first thing I had to do was head to the pool. It felt very natural and free. That’s what attracted me to swimming,” Ridhima said.
A coach at SAI suggested Ridhima be enrolled in BAC, one of the country’s premier swimming centres that has produced many an international. From 2015, she became among the hundreds of trainees at BAC, and more than a year later, got into Christopher’s tutelage. Christopher singles out a state meet four years ago that made him believe Ridhima was in store for bigger things. “She won medals in the 1500m backstroke and 50m freestyle events. I saw a lot of potential in this kid,” Christopher said.
For Ridhima, it meant dedicating two rigorous morning and evening sessions for five days a week and travelling around for competitions. Her school—Delhi Public School—was flexible, but the mother had to firm up a taxing routine running around for and with her daughter. “My day starts at 3.45am and ends at 11pm,” Sunita said. “But it’s worth it with the kind of results she is giving and because she shows that commitment.”
Elaborating on that commitment, Ridhima charts back to finding pleasure in pain. “If my body hurts, I know that I’m doing better. And the more I push myself, the better I get,” she said.
Easy to forget she is 14, isn’t it? Not when she describes her world outside the pool, which comprises painting, learning the guitar and keyboard, listening to music and playing with her dog, Simba. “She wants her cheesecake every day,” Sunita said with a smile. “She is kiddish about everything else except swimming. She knows what she is doing. She is a very playful girl while practising but when she is standing at the block to compete, she is extremely serious.”
Ridhima has broken down her timing targets across events into seconds and milliseconds, and has marked qualifying for the 2022 Asian Games as her next key objective by shaving off a second in the 100m backstroke.
Ridhima closely followed her role model Kaylee Mckeown at the Tokyo Games—where the Australian backstroker swept four medals—and cheered for fellow Indians Maana, Srihari Nataraj and Sajan Prakash at the biggest sporting stage where she wants to be one day.
“My dream is to represent India at the Olympics,” Ridhima added. “I’ve not hit my peak yet. So I know that if I can train the same way, I can further cut my timings down and get there.”
Her coach doesn’t wish to look that far into the future, although he is confident that the teen can deal with the significant step up from the national to international level. “It will take its own course of time. Nationally, she is holding up well. She is precise in training as well. But it’s about taking one step at a time,” Christopher said.
For now, Ridhima will shift her training focus to the short course (25m) with an eye on the World Championships, where she will be the lone Indian female swimmer. “It’s a big thing. It will be a huge experience for me. I have set certain goals and timings for it. I’m pretty excited,” she said.