Awesome THREESOME

STAN RAYAN

Shikha Tandon... simply unbeatable at home.-MAHESH HARILAL

AS she plugs in the earphones and allows the soft rock to take over, you realise she's slowly slithering into the groove. She seems to meditate. Her brown eyes appear to focus intensely on some distant inner image.

A few minutes later, as she slices through the pool, Shikha Tandon is in a world of her own.

The country no longer offers the Karnataka swimmer a competition worth the name. So is the case with her male teammate Rehan Poncha and BSF's Arjun Muralidharan in their specialised events.

For all of them, the race is against the clock.

"We don't have anyone to push us here. And this is the only meet we have in the country," said Shikha after winning five individual gold medals at the 59th Senior Nationals in Thrissur. All without raising a sweat, playing a big role in Karnataka's massive triumph in the championship.

The 20-year-old currently holds seven national records, the first Indian woman to own so many at the same time. She has been winning the Best Swimmer award at the Senior Nationals the last three years. Again, it's a cake-walk.

The lovely mermaid has a good reason to be bored. One would understand if she takes things easy, during training and in meets.

But this is not the case. Shikha is full of motivation. So are Arjun Muralidharan and Rehan Poncha. They are all chasing a dream... they are in pursuit of swimming's golden fleece.

Long drought

India is a nobody in Asian swimming. The country has not won an Asian Games medal in the sport since Khazan Singh won the 200m butterfly silver at the 1986 Seoul Asiad.

The three youngsters want to end the long drought.

Asia is now getting closer and closer to the world's best in swimming with countries like Japan and China leading the charge. And Shikha, Arjun and Rehan are aware that winning an Asiad medal is like climbing Mount Everest with the peak getting taller and taller with every passing year. The stunning performance by the Japanese and the Chinese in the recent East Asian Games in Macau is just an indicator of the things to come at the next Asian Games in Doha, Qatar in December 2006.

Arjun Muralitharan... a class act.-MAHESH HARILAL

But that has not stopped our stars from giving a strong try.

Despite swimming against heavy odds, Shikha was eighth in the 100m freestyle at the last Asian Games in Busan in 2002. She has always produced her best at the majors, with a majority of her national records, including the 50m free mark which fetched her the Afro-Asiad silver medal, coming on the big stage.

Sprints offer hope

Her bronze in the recent Indoor Asian age-group swimming Championships in Bangkok, which made her the first Indian woman to win a medal at an international short-course event, is another indication of her vast potential. With a little improvement on her start and turns, Shikha feels she could start thinking of an Asian medal in the freestyle sprints.

Shikha went to California for training a few months before the 2004 Athens Olympics. "More than the training, the frequent competition, almost every weekend, was a big help. You have people forever pushing you which improves your times. That's what we badly need," she said.

Just for this reason, Pune's Police star Arjun Muralidharan went to Brisbane to race in an Australian junior meet in April with his dad funding the trip. The effort did not go in vain, for though the butterfly star narrowly missed the 200m bronze he clocked his personal best.

Arjun is a very interesting case. His dad G. Muralidharan, a former Services Ranji cricketer and national-level hurdler, coaches him in Pune. "A lot of athletics training goes into his swimming schedule. Well, the training is the same, only the medium is different. I'm also doing a lot of research to help out my sons," said Muralidharan, an Electronics graduate from IIT, Chennai. His elder son Amar is also one of the top freestyle swimmers in the country.

Eighteen and just a little over six feet, Arjun, the best male swimmer in New Delhi last year and in the Thrissur Nationals, is a very promising boy.

"We're now working on his style and turns and hope to bring down his 200 fly time (currently 2:05.13s) to two minutes or lower by the end of 2006 or early 2007. Hopefully, that should bring in international medals," said Muralidharan. That should also break Khazan Singh's national record (2:02.38s) set in 1986.

Arjun gets a strong challenge from Rehan in the 200 fly. "That's very good thing. And since Khazan's Asiad silver also came in the same event, we have hope," said Virendra Nanavati, the Swimming Federation of India secretary.

Some very smart planning went into the making of Khazan. Bula Chowdhury, now one of the world's best sea swimmers, shed some light.

Rehan Poncha... star performer.-MAHESH HARILAL

"Our Australian coach Eric Arnold was almost a father figure for us. And I used to stay in his house in Sydney and train," said Bula, who made the trip to Australia with Khazan and Wilson Cherian.

"Eric's approach was very different," said national coach Pradeep Kumar. "He worked like an Indian, he arranged everything for Khazan. We need somebody like him."

The national federation plans to send Shikha, Arjun and Rehan abroad for training before the Doha Asian Games. And in a refreshingly new line of thinking, the SFI plans to consult the stars and their coaches before firming up plans.

We have waited long for an Asiad medal. It's time to move mountains to realise the dream.

Winners all

Men, free: 50m: Aniketh D'souza (Karn, 24.67s). 100m: Veerdhaval Khade (Mah, 53.69s), 200m: Veerdhaval Khade (Mah, 1:57.32s, NMR; OR 1:58.03 by Amar Muralidharan, Police, 2004). 400m freestyle: Rehan Poncha (Karn, 4:09.18s NMR; OR 4:10.95, own, 2004). 800m: Mandar A. Divase (Pol, 8:36.69s NMR; OR 8:42.79, own, 2004). 1,500m: 1. Mandar A.Divase (Pol, 16:32 .44s new meet record; OR 16:33.60, own, 2004). 4x100m relay: Karnataka (N. A. Sandeep, Rehan Poncha, J.P. Arjun, Aniketh D'souza, 3:43.64s). 4x200m relay: Police (Amar Muralidharan, Kailash Nair, Mandar Divase, Arjun Muralidharan, 8:11.54s NMR; OR 8:13.38, Railways, 2003).

Butterfly, 50m: K. Rajiv (Rly, 26.37s, equalled own meet record in heats). 100m: Arjun Muralidharan (Police, 57.02s). 200m: Arjun Muralidharan (Pol, 2:05.13s, NMR, OR own, 2:05.87, 2004).

Back, 50m: Arjun Muralidharan (Pol, 27.97s, new natl. record and NMR; OR 28.17s by V. Arun, TN, 2003). 100m: Arjun Muralidharan (Pol, 1:01.24s). 200m: Akhar Ali Mir (Rly, 2:12.43s).

Breast, 50m: Deepak Kumar Singh (Pol, 30.70s). 100m: Deepak Kumar Singh (Pol, 1:08.18s). 200m: Rohit Kumar (Pol, 2:29.05).

Medley, 200m IM: Rehan Poncha (Karn, 2:12.51s). 400m IM: Rehan Poncha (Karn, 4:40.32s NMR; OR own, 4:42.19, 2004). 4x100m relay: Karnataka (N. A. Sandeep, J.P.Arjun, Rehan Poncha, Aniketh D'souza, 4:06.71s).

Women, free: 50m: Shikha Tandon (Karn, 26.83s). 100m: Shikha Tandon (Karn, 59.00).

200m: C. Shubha (Karn, 2:13.36s). 400m: Pooja R. Alva (Karn, 4:49.47s). 800m: Aarti Ghorphade (Mah, 9:57.76s). 1,500m: Aarti Ghorpade (Mah, 18:50.66s). 4x100m relay: Karnataka (4:21.31s). 4x200m relay: Karnataka (C.Shubha, M. Kshipra, Pooja R. Alva, Shikha Tandon, 9:26.42s).

Butterfly, 50m: C. Shubha (Karn, 29.44 s, Natl. record & NMR; OR 29.76, own, in heats). 100m: C. Subha (Karn, 1:05.32s). 200m: Richa Mishra (Pol, 2:24.58).

Back, 50m: Shikha Tandon (Karn, 31.37s). 100m: Shikha Tandon (Karn, 1:07.54s). 200m: Shikha Tandon (Karn, 2:26.66s, Natl. record & NMR, OR 2:28.06s by Sangeeta Rani, Delhi, 1995).

Breast, 50m: M. Mini (Ker, 37.44s). 100m: Jessica Bole (Karn, 1:22.11s). 200m: V. Tejaswini (Karn, 2:48.82s, NMR; OR 2:49.68, V. Sivaranjini, Karn, 2003).

Medley: 200m IM: Richa Mishra (Pol, 2:30.11s). 400m IM: V. Tejaswini (Karn, 5:26.28s). 4x100m relay: Karnataka (Shikha Tandon, Prerana, Pooja Alva, C. Shubha, 4:47.42s).

Championships, overall: Karnataka (360 pts). Team, men: Karnataka (155). Women: Karnataka (205). Best swimmers: Arjun Muralidharan (Police, men, 33 pts), Shikha Tandon (Karn, women, 35 pts).

Diving, men: Highboard: Viraj Patil (Rlys, 506.15 pts). 1m springboard: Yogesh Watve (Ser, 297.20 pts). 3m springboard: Viraj Patil (Mah, 521.45 ps).

Women, highboard: Yogita S. Walunge (Rly, 359.10 pts). 1m springboard: Hrutika Shriram (Rlys, 166.20 pts). 3m springboard: Taniya Ganguly (Rly, 379.95 pts).

Team championship: Railways (men 36 pts, women 31). Best divers: Viraj Patil (Rlys, men, 19 pts); Taniya Ganguly (Rlys, women, 12).

Waterpolo (finals), men: Services bt Rlys 8-6. Best player: Martin Joseph (Services).

Women: Kerala drew with Police 2-2 (joint winners). Best player: M.Mini (Kerala).