Indian Swimmers continue to suffer. Who’s to blame?

Yet again, in another “Unlock” announced by the government, swimming pools have been left out. This was the third instance of the “Unlock” when various aspects of the economy were restarted. Gyms, malls, sports complexes, etc. have been allowed to open. Still, swimming pools continue to be disallowed much like cinema halls, entertainment parks, theatres, bars, and so on. Not surprisingly, Indian competitive swimmers who have been waiting many months for the pools to reopen are distraught. They have been let down by the government and the various swimming bodies that promised pools would be reopened.

For the past few weeks, elite swimmers like Virdhawal Khade, Srihari Nataraj and renowned coach Nihar Ameen have been beseeching the sports minister Kiren Rijjiju and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to pay attention to their plight. Numerous tweets have been posted tagging the Swimming Federation of India (SFI), MHA, the sports minister, imploring them to open up the pools for competitive training. India’s highest-ranked swimmer Virdhawal Khade has even gone to the extent of talking about retirement from the sports if there’s no headway. Their exhortations haven’t been answered, except with stoic silence. It’s almost like these swimmers have been banging their heads against the wall, or a better analogy would be they have been dumped in the Arabian Sea without a life jacket.

The predicament and the frustration of the Indian swimmers is quite understandable. It has been over four months since the pools have been closed, that is practically a third-of-the-year. For athletes, who typically spend anything from 4-6 hours in the water, perfecting their strokes, tumbles, catch, and so on, this extended break can be devastating both physically and psychologically.  This is all the more so because they were eagerly preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (which will now be held in 2021). All the preparations, milestones, timelines have gone for a toss.

Qualifying for Olympics is a tough call, especially so in aquatics. The selection process is as follows; participating countries are allowed up to two qualified swimmers per individual event and one relay team. Each country is allowed a maximum of fifty-six swimmers (twenty-eight male and twenty-eight female). Though each country is free to select the swimmers, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) establishes a standard that must be met for a swimmer to be eligible to compete at the Olympic Games. The top swimming body, FINA publishes two sets of time-standards for each of the events: the “Olympic Qualifying Time” known as the “A-Time” and the “Olympic Selection Time” known as “B-Time.” Each country may enter up to two swimmers per event, provided both swimmers meet the qualifying time or A-Time. A country may enter one swimmer per event who meets the qualifying standard or B-Time. Any swimmer who meets the qualifying time will be entered in the event for the Games; a swimmer meeting the B-Time standard will be eligible for entry, and their entry will be allotted/filled in by ranking. A country that does not receive an allocation spot, but has at least one swimmer who meets a qualifying standard may enter the swimmer with the highest ranking. If a country has no swimmers meeting either qualifying standard, it may enter one male and one female in total.

Thus, B-Time qualification will only ensure an invitation to the Olympics if the total available quota slots (878) are not filled. So far, six Indian swimmers have attained the B-Time, Virdhawal with a timing of 22.44s in 50m freestyle. Sajan Prakash (1:58.45 in 200m butterfly), Srihari (54.69s in 100m backstroke), Kushagra Rawat (8:07.99 in 800m freestyle), Aryan Makhija (8:07.80 in 800m freestyle) and Advait Page (8:00.76 in 800m freestyle). Yet, these qualifications count for nothing as only an A-Time can get you the position in the Olympic swimming team. For Virdhawal the target is 22.01; 1:56:48 for Sajan and 53.85 for Srihari. Rawat, Page and Makhija have to clock 7:54:31.

The time difference between 22.01 and 22.44 might not seem much to a common man, but in swimming parlance, it is equivalent to an aeon, a difference between a life-time spent in celebration or in ignominy.

While Indian swimmers struggle to attain these qualifying times, the case is pretty different for a power-house like the US. To give an idea, till August 14, 2019, over 1000 swimmers had attained the qualifying times for different events in the US. To illustrate the high-level of competition, let’s take the 50 Freestyle male event, six swimmers had achieved the A-Time, the best being Caeleb Dressel with 21.04. Some 23 swimmers have attained the B-Time. Indeed, there were 23 swimmers between the timeline of 22.01 to 22.67. Now, the US team can send only two swimmers for this event. Thus, at the US trials, all these swimmers will have to battle out, and only the top two will get to wear the stars and stripes. All these A-Times and B-Times count for little when you are in the US.

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Swimming in The Crawl

The Crawl is a thriller film produced by Sam Raimi. The films brings to fore aspects related to swimming and integrates it into the film.

The very first scene of the film “The Crawl” takes us to a swimming competition at the University of Florida, Gainesville. It’s a 400-m freestyle relay, and we get to know later that it is practice trials. Kaya Scodelario as Haley has determination writ over the face as she adjusts her cap/google and takes a stance on the diving board. In a flash she is in the water, the dive was excellent. She starts with a powerful underwater dolphin kick and has a good breakout. Her cadence is decent, and the arms follow a rhythmic pattern.

At the 50m mark, as she takes a tumble, she falls behind. The dolphin on the return is sad, and it seems her ATP is finished. She swims the 100 metres like Katie Ledecky when she should have done so like Sarah Sjostrom. She comes in second, is disturbed and recalls her childhood swimming days when her dad would coach her. “Remember, you are the Apex Predator,” he says in the flashback.

But that contention will severely be tested in the ensuing 90 minutes, as a category-five hurricane hits the Florida coast, and her dad is incommunicado. She decides to venture out in the storm to find her dad. After much struggle and search, she does find her dad Dave (played by Barry Pepper) in what is called a crawl space. Which is a small cellar space underneath the house, it has access to all water and electricity connections. When Haley finds her dad, he is blanked out and wounded. He has been attacked by an enormous alligator, that sneaked in from a nearby alligator farm and settled down in the crawl. As Haley retrieves her dad and tries to drag him out of the crawl, the exit is barred by a giant alligator that attacks them.

Barely escaping the gators, the father-daughter duo finds safety in a small confine bordered with steel pipes that blocks the gators from coming in.

Haley brings her father back to his senses, who is surprised to find her there. It’s apparent they don’t share the best of vibes. On knowing that she is coming from a swimming competition, the first thing that he asks her is her split timings. This is just one of the many instances that reveal how swimming is integrated into this thriller film. For example, time and again, we are reminded about the swimming talents of Haley, as her father urges her to dig deeper and stand firm in times of adversities. In doing so, we are taken to past, where Haley is competing in the races, and her dad is cheering on from the deck.

The crawl has its shares of typical thrills and chills, with the alligators gorging on any human that is available for a munch. Hurricane time is almost like a Superbowl event for them. The film is a reminder of the cult classic Jaws, to which it pays a smart little homage at the start. The film did well on the BO, and even the acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino called Crawl his favourite movie of the year 2019.

Yet, the reason the film stands out is because of its integration of swimming. There aren’t many films made on swimming, and some are downright boring like the Lady in the Water by M. Night Shyamalan. While this is not a film on the sports of swimming, it highlights it many ways. In one of the scenes, the father tells her daughter, “you are faster than the gators,” and she does that. Guess what, swimmers indeed are best suited for survival in these adverse conditions. Imagine is Haley played cricket, basketball, or even soccer, would any of it come handy in such life-and-death scenario.

By the way, the crawl is also the name of a swimming stroke. Freestyle as we call it — the face-down swimming with scissor kick — is called as the Front Crawl or at times the Australian crawl. That’s a little more swimming trivia for you.

Come to think of, would Jaws would have been more fun, if Amity Island’s police chief Martin Brody was an ace swimmer? I doubt that after all, even Michael Phelps falls short of the Great white, how would anyone else fair better. SO, I guess Haley should be thankful in a manner that her home was close to an alligator farm and not a shark-infested lagoon.

The Film is now available on Prime Video in India

The screaming, shouting, shrieking swimming parents of India

Here’s how swimming meets in India unravel, in a auditory spectacle. Hear on…

Of the many aspects that you find at local swimming meets in India, the one thing that genuinely amazes and amuses me is the sheer decibel levels. Swimming competitions are boisterous and loud, and the primary and almost the sole contributor to this noise pollution are the swimming parents, namely the dads and mums that accompany their kiddos to the event.

At the risk of sounding misogynistic, the fact is undeniable that it is the mums who take the cake when it comes to shouting. Yet, the dads aren’t too far behind; a yelling father is not an unusual sight. At times, the mums and dads band together, form a shouting partnership with take up vantage positions along the lanes of their wards, and then, scream their hearts out. Quite often, when the heats are announced the partners will slightly move in tandem to their respective lanes, it is very deft and scientific, as you need to choose the position based on many factors, like which lane is your kid swimming, which side he or she breathes, at what point he or she tends to give up and needs a parental boom-gun.

The decibel levels are inversely proportional to the age-group of the swimming competitions. Namely, the younger they are, the louder their parents would be. This could also be attributed to the fact that kids are new, fresh and understanding the nuances of competition and hence vulnerable to the shouts and yelling. As they grow older, they can blank out the noise and become quite blissfully oblivious to the trauma, travails and machinations of their mum and dad.

Now and then in this shouting tribe, emerges an exceptional talent, a shouter who is able to outshout all, with a divine talent to drown out the other shouts and shrieks and to dominate the proceedings. In all my years of having my kids swim at these meets, I have had a good fortune of witnessing a few of these shouting geniuses. Yet again, somehow all of them have been mothers, with a particular unique trait. For instance, I remember a mum who had a shriek that was capable of scaring a ghost in its tracks; her shrill yells would stun almost all at the meets. I am sure it would have shattered glass cutlery if we were unfortunate to carry it. Then, there was this another, who’d continuously chant the name of her son, so loudly, as if her life depended on it. And then there are these pacer mums who would keep shouting instructions to their kiddos, “kick-kick-kick”, “pull-pull-pull”, “push-push-pull”, “finish-finish-finish” while consistently running up and down the deck. And then there are those transitionary mums, who’d install themselves at the other end of the pool, shouting and shrieking as the kiddo comes near that end, and then quietening down with loud salutation that goes like “Go-Go-GOOOO”.

The dads, in the meantime, are intently following the proceedings. With a furrow writ large on their face, they are looking not only at their kid, but more on the kids that are beating or competing with their own. Now, and then, they too shout the shouting game, but unlike the mums who do so with unbridled emotions, the dads are very strategic and conscious. For instance, if the kid is lagging much behind, the mum would be running helter-skelter shouting and screaming, the dads will go somewhat numb, thinking of all the things they want to do with their ward for letting them down.

It isn’t that dads are devoid of emotions, I have seen quite a few pops debunking their cloak of civility, cursing and slapping their kid for poor performance right after the races. The trouble is dads often function at the extremes, either they’d be dead cool or deadly-hot, seldom things in between.

Personally, wife and I have been part of this shouters tribe (and are still) at the races. Initially, when we joined the competitive fraternity, we discovered that the parents of the winners were most prone to this loud behaviour. Naturally, we deduced that this must surely be helpful to the kids, provide them with the stimulus to work harder, to push the limits a wee-bit more. Also, swimming as a sport is quite a super competitive one, where sometimes the difference between glory and debacle is merely in micro-seconds, say 0.03, is what stands between you on the podium smiling and you on the pool deck crying. In such a scenario, a little boost if it comes from the screams can be much fruitful. No wonder, we too were making our humble contribution to the auditory chaos. I really don’t know how good this screaming business was; if the two kids would have won more medals or won less but for our vociferous inputs.

The kids, on their part, have told us, that in the thick of things they can barely hear us. For them, it is just a cacophony of noises, which they are somewhat accustomed to; they are able to ignore it. It’s like those workers at the airports, who become numb to the roaring aeroplane engines by having to hear them out all day. Similarly, the kids too are immune or recalcitrant, except when they are in the end-lanes and cannot just avoid the loud guardians.

If shouting could boost performance, we Indians would be winning every darn medals at the international aquatic meets. But the fact, we don’t, just proves the inefficacy of the shouting tact.

So, if there is no empirical linkage between shouting and performance, why do parents shout so much at these competitions? What’s the use, you might wonder?

Well, as a parent who has been part of the Shouters Anonymous, and has indulged his lungs and the larynx at these meets, I have discovered the truth. And the fact is, Parents at these meets are not shouting for their kids; instead they are crying for themselves. The shrieks and the screams are like a catharsis for the edgy souls. The eager, nervous, tense, parents do so as an autonomous reaction. When they shout, they become a part of the race itself; they are breaking the water with their pull, they are catching the catch, they are ramping up the flutter kick. At that point in time, the shouts are like the mantras that you see being repeated continuously at the Buddhist monasteries. They are an act of participation, of prayer, of competition.

All this shouting is only for the fittest. You should not have heart issues or hypertension to be part of this brouhaha. The funny thing is, I feel that you would develop these issues, if you attend such meets regularly.

As the kid grows and becomes independent, the parents then become spectators—indeed concerned and expectant spectators but not the participative ones.

This shouting business is like a phase that almost all parents go through at the meets. When their kids start, they are young and enthusiastic and loud, then they mellow out and make way for the new lot. This cycle keeps repeating over and over again. And the decibel levels at these meets never ebb.

A special note: while the parents go through the phases of shouting and silence over time: there is one tribe that never lets the volumes down: it’s the coaches.

If there is anyone more charged and pent-up at the meets, it is the swimming coaches. They are like those pressure-cookers on a hot flame, whistling away at regular intervals with rising intensity. The funny bit is, each coach has his unique way of encouraging his pupils, some even have a set pattern of things that get done before and after each race. Some coaches wave their hats or caps gesticulating loudly, then others have a loud piercing whistle that connects to their kids. Some coaches stay at the sidelines, watching intently making notes.others would be more charged up, running up and down the deck. In short, the coaches at these meets are almost as involved or probably more than the parents.

All these factors and more, make the swim meets a very unique and exciting affair. The whole day moves along punctuated by these loud cries, shouts, exhortations, cheers. It is never a staid affair.

The only thing that changes is that we need a warm-water therapy once we return back home, the voice would be raspy, the throat sore. Till the next meet. And then, we begin again.

Believe me; it is not easy being an Indian swimming parent.

Encouraging Junior Swimming Through Cash Prize

The Thane Mayor Swimming Competitions incentivised junior swimming in the district level by giving out cash prize to the winners. This was a major boost to the swimming kids.

The Thane Mayor Swimming Championships is a big draw for swimming enthusiasts living in the district of Thane & Navi Mumbai. At the recently held Thane Mayor Swimming Championships, there were scores of swimmers from Under 6 to Under 17, competing with enthusiasm and spirit. One big factor for this zeal was the cash prize that was given to each of the three medalists in all the swimming events. A gold medal would get you ₹3,000; silver would come with ₹2000, and a bronze medal would be accompanied by a cheque of ₹1500. In total, there were 59 events organized over two days at the 50-meter Thane Club swimming pool. The total money pot spent by Thane Municipal Council as prize money was around ₹3,80,000.

The impact was there to be seen. The kids were eager to compete; the parents were all charged up; the coaches were anxious and exuberant. While a lot of schools are in the midst of their annual examinations cycle, but this did not bother kids, as they were here not just to compete but also to earn money.

Swimming isn’t given due credit as a sport in our nation, at least not given the weightage as a sport, say the way Cricket is or even for that matter Kabaddi. To be fair, swimming is a very non-viewer-friendly sport. Often, the races are speedy and end under-a-minute. I mean, you wait for a race to start for 15-20 minutes, and then it ends in 30 seconds. That’s too quick, and most of the time, you are unable even to view the swimmers properly, they all look the same once they are in the race. You know them only at the start and at the end. That’s it.

And then, unlike other sports where a dark horse could emerge from the unknown, the wins are reasonably predictable. Typically, the podium spots will keep rotating between a small set of individuals. The rest are like character artists in a Hollywood film; for instance, do you recall any actors that were terminated by the machines in the film War of the Worlds, while Tom Cruise was trying to save his backside? That’s the case with swimming. It is quite elitist, in that way.

But because swimming has not been given much focus or support, we as a nation are pretty terrible at it. According to the Australian Olympian Stephanie Rice, “the best result so far of India is about 24th in the world when it comes to Olympics”.

Take the case of Tokyo Olympics 2020 to be held in June and July. Not a single Indian swimmer has qualified for any of those 35 swimming events (70 races, as there are men and women races). Aquatics sports account for the maximum number of medals at the Olympics as a sporting event, and India does not even have a chance to compete forget winning in these closely-fought races.

One of the primary reasons why we don’t have great swimmers in India is because young-age swimming is not promoted in India, the way it could. There is no concerted effort taken by governments or sports bodies to find gifted swimmers and nurture them for the future. Competitions for swimmers are held chaotically, with no gains to be made by winners, except for glory.

In this context, the Thane Mayor Swimming Competition stands out. By giving out cash prizes to the young winners, they are incentivizing swimming for these young kids. Also, the prize money is made through cheque payment that will only be made to a winner’s account. So, this also coaxes many parents to open their kid’s bank accounts.

For swimmers living in Thane, there are only a couple of events that provide such incentives for winners, the other one being the Navi Mumbai Mayor Cup Swimming Championships. The competitions are galore, but the incentives are not. In this regard, kudos is due to Thane Municipal Council, TDAA, the organisers and Mayor Naresh Mhaske’s team for making this happen. The Thane event could be a blueprint for encouraging swimming at the junior-most level in India. It was heartening to see, 6-year kids waving the cheques with pride at the end of the award ceremony.

If India needs to make a mark on the global scene, junior swimming needs to be nurtured and promoted. And to do so, we need more such events that give not only medals but also an added incentive to the winners.

Fairplay in Sports: Nike’s Vaporfly vs Tech Body-suits

The Nike Vaporfly Shoes controversy is reminiscent of the Fully-body suit controversy in swimming. Do such ‘innovations’ add to the sports, or bring it down?

The World Aquatics Championship held in Rome, Italy, in 2009, will be forever etched in the history of swimming. It would be a dubious reason why it will be remembered, though. It was the meet at which world records tumbled like there was no tomorrow. Forty-three world records were set at the tournament, out of 40 events. The shocking part was that in the women’s 50 fly event, the world record was broken twice in the space of 5 minutes. In the end, there was hardly anyone that was left. But this meet was not a congregation of swimming mutants. It was your everyday champions that were competing against each other. The difference wasn’t in the swimmers but what these champions were wearing. All the participants except three were wearing the superbuoyant polyurethane suits. The high-tech suits enabled the swimmers to bring their times down in an utterly unbelievable manner.

The best instance of this triumph of technology over talent was in the 200 Metre Freestyle men’s event. German Paul Biedermann not only defeated the reigning Olympian and champion Michael Phelps but also shattered his WR. Bidermann clocked 1.42.00 and shaved off almost a second from the earlier record of Phelps, which stood at 1.42.96. In this race, Phelps came in for silver at 1.43.22.

Guess what the difference was. Paul Biederman was wearing the Arena X-Glide, one of the polyurethane suits that turn the swimmers’ bodies into sleek kayaks. It enabled Biedermann to drop 4 seconds from his earlier best in Beijing Olympics. For comparison, it took Phelps four years to cut the same.

The World Championships were tarnished as a farce, so much so that the USA Swimming National Team Director Mark Schubert dubbed the event as a “plastic meet.”

The outcry forced the world-body for swimming, FINA, wake up and ban these plastic full-body suits.

It has been more than a decade since the Plastic Meet. But the debate over where the line lies between appropriate use of technology and misuse of it still rages on. The latest example is Nike Vaporfly shoes. These shoes have sent shock waves through the marathon circles, with competitors wearing these shoes dropping times, like never before. The shoes have a thick midsole and carbon-fiber plate and provide an extra spring to the runner.

The shoes debuted in the market in 2017, and have caused an upheaval of sorts. The five fastest official marathons ever have come in these shoes, all within the last two years. Two of the five fastest women’s marathons were also in Vaporfly. The Kenyan runner Kipchoge became the first person to run 26.2 miles in under two hour in 2019. The way the records have tumbled have caused an outcry, which forced the world body to review the shoes. As of now, the World Athletics has allowed the shoes to be used at the Tokyo Olympics and World Championships. But the ruling also carried a dissenting note. According to the body, there is “sufficient evidence to raise concerns that the integrity of the sport might be threatened by the recent developments in shoe technology.” The agency also issued a few restrictions on shoe construction and make.

The debate over the use of these super-light shoes is reminiscent of the debate over the use of hi-tech suits in swimming. While many hail these new products as innovation, others dub them as unethical and unfair.

The trouble with these innovations is that they make the games elitist and undemocratic; only the rich will be able to afford and win. Imagine an athlete that has spent 8-10 hours every day practicing hard for years. Only to be beaten by an individual who is not better or skilled, but is wearing a costly suit or a shoe. This is not only unfair to the sportsperson but also detrimental to the sports, as then athletes start taking their performance for granted.

What we need to adjudge in the Nike Vaporfly controversy is whether the shoe affords any advantage to the runner in terms of enhanced performance? According to Nike, it does almost 4.2%, which clear unevens the level-playing field. This compels the runners to go in for these shoes or risk losing races to other contestants wearing such footwear.

The sad part is not only the records such “innovations” engineers but that they stay on for generations. Take Paul Bidermann’s 200 Freestyle record; it still stands there mocking at all the swimmers who wish to attain greatness through merit and hard work.

And if you think that, one is being unfair to Bidermann. Well, post the ban on full-body suits, Bidermann was never able to achieve the heights again. In 2011, he finished 3rd, behind Phelps who was second. In the London Olympics in 2012, he finished 5th in the same event, and then in Rio 2016; he finished 6th. Obviously, without his suit, Bidermann was not the Super-hero. Meanwhile, the real super-hero Phelps won 4 Golds & 2 Silver in London 2012, and 5 Golds & 1 Silver in Rio 2016.

That should settle the debate. For good.